FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - In October 2020, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and Health Resources & Services Administration (HRSA) reported over 80% of the boroughs in Alaska, as have staffing shortages in primary care. Medical Department-Activity Alaska and its beneficiaries have also felt the strain of shortages.
“Just hang in there for 75 more days,” said Col. Eli Lozano, MEDDAC-AK commander. “The cavalry is coming.”
According to Lozano, 54 Soldiers will be leaving MEDDAC-AK between now and September. The good news? 89 are inbound during the same time. With 35 additional staff members added to the ranks, 27 of which work in a medical capacity, patients should start seeing a decrease in wait times for appointments this fall.
This boost in numbers comes in response to the U.S. Army announcing the release of its Arctic Strategy, “Regaining Arctic Dominance.”
Staffing Army medical treatment facilities is based on a three-tiered system, with Tier-1 being staffed at the highest rate, based on missions and Army priorities. This can be a challenge as there are always more places to fill than faces to fill them with, says Lozano.
This year, MEDDAC-AK will be staffed at Tier-1.
“MEDDAC-AK has not been Tier-1 in recent history,” said Lozano, “but this year, for the first time, Alaska will become one of the highest manned medical readiness facilities in Army Medicine.”
Lozano believes the boost in staffing will alleviate the majority of frustrations regarding the lack of available appointments for both patients and staff members.
“Right now the demands are not going down, the requirements aren’t going down and there are no more people to give,” said Lozano. Because of this, appointments have been difficult to come by for patients.
“I fully comprehend how this is being felt in our community,” said Lozano. “It is not lost on me that many of you in our community are finding non-emergent appointments pushed out three to six weeks and some are asking the question why they are not being referred off-post when TRICARE standards are not being met. We depend on our network partners and we work through HealthNet to find providers willing to take TRICARE Prime patients for primary care. Unfortunately, no providers in our Fairbanks network are currently accepting TRICARE Prime patients for primary care.”
“This is the challenge we are facing right now,” continued Lozano. “I empathize with our community and we are working extremely hard to meet the high demands for appointments our community needs and greatly appreciate your patience.”
Capt. Tasha Pellegrini, a family practice doctor at Bassett Army Community Hospital, hopes patients know the staff feels frustration from the challenging lack of appointments too.
“I know we don’t suffer as much as the patients do from having poor access to care, but it does hurt us too,” said Pellegrini. “There are not enough appointments, not enough hours, not enough days and it hurts our sense of being. We all went into medicine to help, and when we cannot, it really is difficult for us.”
Lozano acknowledges the stress being short-staffed puts not only on patients, but also on MEDDAC-AK personnel and is thankful for their dedication and commitment.
“It feels vulnerable, as a commander, to know what my people need but not be able to give it to them; at least right now,” said Lozano. “The thing I do have control over is allowing my staff take leave in order to combat burnout.”
“We need our staff healthy so they can take care of our patients and to do that, they need time off too. My number one priority as a commander is my staff, so their number one priority can be our patients. I have no doubt we are doing the best we can, with the staff we have, in the time we have.”
Pellegrini agrees the staff are doing everything they can to provide the best care possible.
“We want to see you,” said Pellegrini. “We want to take care of you. We want to take care of all your concerns and questions. Please have patience with us.”