WHA President and CEO Eric Borgerding and Vice President of Federal and State Relations Jon Hoelter joined area hospital leaders from Mayo Clinic Health System, Gundersen Health System, Tomah Health, the Tomah VA, and Black River Memorial Hospital at Fort McCoy on Sept. 9 for a meeting with U.S. Army medical staff and U.S. State Department representatives to discuss coordination and capacity of medical care for the Afghan refugees currently housed there. Staff from Monroe County Public Health Department and the Wisconsin Department of Health Services also participated.
According to staff from Fort McCoy, the base is currently housing about 13,500 refugees as guests until they can be resettled at a community of their choosing in the U.S. While it is unclear how long the resettlement process will take, it is expected that more evacuees will cycle in as current Fort McCoy guests are resettled. Fort McCoy officials estimated about 60,000 Afghan refugees are currently being housed in seven military bases across the U.S., with another 65,000 currently housed in other countries, many of whom may ultimately come to the U.S. for resettlement.
Colonel Michael Poss, garrison commander, provided a brief background on the history of Fort McCoy and explained it was chosen as a site due to its ability to quickly scale up and provide housing for a large number of guests. Colonel Matthew Fandre, the Task Force McCoy surgeon who oversees medical operations thanked the area hospital leaders for their immense assistance, noting the operation could not succeed without their support. He acknowledged the base’s medical operations have experienced many growing pains and issues to iron out as planners are developing systems to care for the guests’ many medical needs. He expressed his gratitude to hospitals for going above and beyond what was expected of them.
Dr. Mary Reed, who is a family practice doctor that works for KBR, the federal contractor providing health care provider staffing for the medical clinic at the base, apologized for the burden the surrounding hospitals and health systems have had to deal with due to guests needing hospital care outside of Fort McCoy. She said the clinic currently has about 200 staff (though not all are medical) and that it has been gradually adding more clinical capabilities.
During the discussion, Borgerding said the main concern he has heard from hospitals has been over the tight capacity that has resulted from a health care system severely stressed with the recent COVID surge. Borgerding stressed the importance of Fort McCoy expanding and keeping as much medical care as possible on the base itself to preserve capacity for the area’s health care system.
“Both WHA and area hospitals are very proud to help with this important effort, to answer the call, and they are playing a critical role right now,” Borgerding said during the roundtable discussion. “But when you add the equivalent of another Tomah and another Sparta to the area with little notice, there must very soon follow additional resources, more care capability brought into Fort McCoy so that more services are delivered at Fort and fewer supplies and other resources are requested from already stressed area hospitals and health systems.”
Colonel Fandre said they are trying to minimize the need to send guests outside of Fort McCoy as much as possible and have been trying to streamline operations and reduce unnecessary emergency department calls and admissions. However, he said top brass have determined they will not be establishing a full military hospital on the base, but only currently plan on maintaining largely primary care clinical capabilities.
One of the issues raised by local hospital leaders was the fact that some guests are showing up without proper identification, creating challenges for continuity of care. Fort McCoy staff acknowledged that is an issue they are working to resolve. They aim to ensure all guests who are transferred to hospitals are first screened by the Fort McCoy clinic and sent out with proper ID and documentation. Colonel Fandre thanked hospital leaders for hosting a daily morning coordinating call to help resolve these and many other issues.
The meeting closed with a bus tour of the base, including the sites of ongoing medical screenings. While Fort McCoy staff were not able to account for the total number of medical screenings completed, they acknowledged that was a work in progress, including accounting for the number of pregnant Afghan women. Borgerding noted that WHA had been working with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services and the Wisconsin Congressional Delegation to urge support for additional resources to be sent to Fort McCoy to boost onsite health care capacity, including its prenatal and post-partum medical capabilities and minimize complications with hospital births. He said WHA will continue to follow this closely and advocate for more resources to support area hospitals.
Contact WHA Vice President of Federal and State Relations Jon Hoelter