IRON MOUNTAIN, Mich. (WJMN) – The Oscar G. Johnson VA Medical Center provides care to veterans in 25 counties and oversees seven outpatient clinics across the Upper Peninsula and Northern Wisconsin.

Bradley Nelson, Chief of Public Affairs and Veteran Engagement at Oscar G. Johnson VAMC, says they are one of the most rural VA medical centers in the United States.

“99% of our veterans are classified as rural or highly rural by definition and we are also one of the largest patient service areas east of the Mississippi,” said Nelson. “You know, 25,825 square miles, 25 counties, 15 in the Upper Peninsula, [10] in Wisconsin, a huge, you figure it takes six hours to drive from one end of the U.P. to the other, that’s our area, of course, we have seven community based clinics but even then that’s not a lot.”

Nelson says that the VA provides good care but they rely on community partnerships for some specialty care. If a person needs specialty care that the VA offers they have to be outside of an hour drive for a referral to another provider, for routine care the drive time has to be greater than 30 minutes. Additionally, if there is a wait time of 20 days or greater for care veterans can be referred to another provider to be seen sooner.

Serving such a spread out rural population comes with challenges, but Nelson says one positive is the relationships they are able to build with the veterans and with the community.

“We have to be in the community, we are in the community because we’re rural you know our towns in Iron Mountain and Marquette they’re small enough,” said Nelson. “We know the veterans groups as well so that’s what really helps too is community partnerships.”

Nelson says their motto is “choose VA,” the community providers are available to get care to veterans as quickly as possible in cases where they can’t provide care or provide it quick enough. Nelson says if they can get care within the VA system they should because it’s integrated care.

“When we say integrated care, is we have mental health, primary care, all the specialty care all under basically one roof,” said Nelson.

Integrative care is part of the VA’s whole health program. Nelson says they aren’t just about reactive care but they also focus on preventative care and keeping people healthy.

“That’s been a big change in the VA over I would say the last 20 years or so where we want to not just help veterans when they get sick we want to maintain and keep them healthy,” said Nelson. “So we have healthcare programs, whole health programs, we have tai chi, we have yoga.”

They also include programs on how to take charge of one’s own healthcare. Nelson says the care model is patient-centered. They have community partners for many of the services they offer and their community partnerships extend across the Upper Peninsula.

“We have a lot of different programs that reach in and reach out to the community for helping us to serve our veterans,” said Nelson.

If you are looking for VA health care you can visit them online to search for resources, health care services, providers and more.