FOX 11 Investigates: VA says surgeries up at Green Bay clinic

A surgery room inside the Milo C. Huempfner Outpatient VA Clinic in Green Bay, Wis. (WLUK)

GREEN BAY (WLUK) -- Green Bay's VA clinic has been open for more than four years. But there are still surgery rooms not being used.

While VA officials say the number of surgeries performed is up, some say it should be higher.

The Milo C. Huempfner Outpatient Clinic opened in August 2013,

FOX 11 Investigates first highlighted the delays in the opening of surgery center in February 2015. That came after the director of surgery, who was hired to get the clinic up and running, resigned.

A few months later, a new head of surgery was hired, Dr. Richard Ellison.

“My real role here is to maximize the use of this facility,” Dr. Ellison told FOX 11 in June 2015. That month, doctors performed the first surgeries there.

But just one year later, Dr. Ellison also resigned.

He expressed his frustrations about the lack of surgeries being performed in an interview with FOX 11 Investigates in May of 2016.

“I have three empty operating rooms. The lights are off. We don't even go in them,” Dr. Ellison said at the time.

Fast forward to today. How is the surgery center doing? FOX 11 Investigates wanted to find out.

According to the VA, in 2015, doctors performed just 65 surgeries at the clinic.

In 2016, the surgery center's first full year in operation, that number climbed to 469.

Last year, doctors performed 576 surgeries. That's a 23% increase.

Dr. Shiloh Ramos is the associate chief of staff at the facility.

“I like to tell people we're kind of in phase two,” Dr. Ramos said.

Ramos explained how the surgery center has grown.

“We had just opened up so we started with some general surgery, then we quickly brought online some ophthalmology services and now we're at the point where we're doing some orthopedic procedures as well as some urologic and gynecologic procedures." Dr. Ramos said.

While there is growth, the surgery center is still operating below capacity.

“There are portions of it that are not being used yet,” Dr. Ramos explained. “We have expanded some services into it, for example, some of our dental procedures are also done there because we brought on, since the last time you were here, an oral surgeon as well. But to answer your question, there are still some areas of it that are not utilized. And that has a little bit to do with what we can actually do here.”

For example, surgeons are not able to perform surgeries that would require an overnight stay.

The clinic has five operating rooms. But the VA says it only uses three of them on a regular basis.

“There's not enough demand for the procedures that we can do here to utilize all five of those rooms,” Dr. Ramos said.

When asked when he sees that changing, Dr. Ramos replied, “Partly depends on two things: One, if we're able to expand the surgical services that we're permitted to do. That certainly would allow use to use some of the other rooms. And two, as we begin to recruit and expand our services to support outlying areas.”

While the numbers are up, 576 surgeries are about two to three surgeries per day. Some say that's not good enough.

Dr. Ellison, who left the VA more than a year and a half ago, says the surgery center was built to handle a lot more cases.

“They have the capacity to do 6,000 cases a year. Now, do I expect them to do 6,000 cases a year? No. They don't have the patient population for that. But doing 570 cases in a year, to be blunt, is not something to be proud of," Dr. Ellison said.

Dr. Ellison says during his one year with the VA, he tried to expand the services. One thing Dr. Ellison wanted to do was lease unused operating rooms to health care providers in the private sector.

“There were ways to make it better,” Dr. Ellison said. “To be blunt, the answer was always no. Mostly, it was the bureaucracy of the institution itself, not the Green Bay VA but the VA itself was just too difficult.”

“We have explored those options,” Dr. Ramos said. “They haven't panned out for us. We have made those efforts.”

The VA currently has six surgeons including a full-time general surgeon and a part-time urologist, gynecologist, ophthalmologist, orthopedic surgeon and oral surgeon. Dr. Ramos says the VA is looking to add services. The VA recently hired an orthopedic surgery physician's assistant and is looking to hire more surgeons.

“We do have an increased demand for urology services that we need to be build upon what we already have. We're doing a good job with it now but we need to add and grow that service,” Dr. Ramos said.

The problem, he says, is finding doctors.

“Recruiting is a challenge,” he said. “There's demand for pretty much all specialties throughout this country so it's not exclusive to the VA to have challenges with recruitment.”

In the meantime, surgery rooms remain unused in a facility Dr. Ellison says is simply too big for the demand.

“Let's just face it. A small facility out here that's wasting money isn't everyone's problem. There are bigger fish to fry,” Dr. Ellison said.

When asked what he would say to people who still question the size of the facility and the fact that there are still surgery rooms that are not being used, Dr. Ramos responded, “What I'd tell you is they have every right to do that. Frankly, we welcome that. We want to be as completely transparent as we possibly can be.”

Overall, VA officials say the Green Bay clinic served 17,854 veterans last year. That number has gone up each year since the facility opened. It's about five times as many veterans as were served at the previous clinic.

Not all of those veterans are the from the Green Bay and Appleton area.

Dr. Ramos says some veterans from places like the Upper Peninsula are coming to Green Bay to receive specialty services.

He says the VA is looking using the surgery center for veterans from outside the area as well.

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