‘Improving ease of access:’ Milwaukee VA partners with fire departments to better serve veterans

Ben Thelen

MILWAUKEE -- A new collaboration between the Milwaukee VA Medical Center and fire departments in the Milwaukee area could help save lives. Announced Tuesday, Jan. 22, the first-of-its-kind program -- currently available in West Allis -- will be expanded to other communities in Milwaukee County.

"For a long time, the VA wasn't exactly on the radar for the EMS world," said Ben Thelen, nurse manager, Milwaukee VA Medical Center Emergency Department.

The Milwaukee VA and the West Allis Fire Department have joined forces.

"We identified that some of our sickest veterans were not using 911 to come to the hospital. They were driving here, taking the bus," said Thelen.

Jason Schaak

Through the program, veterans in participating communities can enroll with 911 for easier access to their home hospital.

"Especially when they have a medical condition that renders them unable to speak to us -- if they're unconscious for whatever reason -- we know they want to come to this hospital because this is where they receive the care that they need," said Capt. Jason Schaak, West Allis Fire Department.

Schaak said through a database, first responders can check a patient's veteran status.

"Their veteran status will change to 'yes,' so right off the bat, we know they're a veteran and they want to go to the VA hospital," said Schaak.

Already, Thelen said they've seen success with this program.

"The thing that's really promising to us is, of the patients West Allis is transferring to us, about 30 percent of them are people who signed up for this program," said Thelen.

Thelen said he hopes this will give veterans confidence to call 911 during any medical crisis, including a mental health emergency.

"Really -- improving the ease of access, especially for the mental health services. We're one of the few emergency departments in the state that has 24/7 mental health providers," said Thelen.

"We want them to rest assured that they're going to be taken care of at the place that, they feel like, does the best job for them," said Schaak.

Over the next several months, the partnership will be expanded to the North Shore, Greenfield and St. Francis. The North Shore Fire Department oversees Bayside, Brown Deer, Glendale, River Hills, Shorewood, Whitefish Bay and Fox Point.

Veterans who live in participating communities will receive enrollment paperwork -- and instructions on how to sign up -- in the mail.

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