TOPEKA — A $4.5 million modernization project at the Topeka VA, expected to break ground this fall, will expand the emergency department. But staffing the facility remains a concern.

The project will increase space, access, privacy and help deliver on suicide prevention, chief of staff Alexander Hallock said.

According to an internal VA email obtained by the Topeka Capital-Journal, the project entails expanding the emergency department into the facility’s specialty clinic, which has been moved to a different area. It also includes private patient bays, a central physician and nursing hub, and a dedicated waiting space for families.

Funds already have been allocated for the two-year, phased-in project, Hallock said.

The emergency department is projected to serve 8,832 patients in fiscal year 2017, which ends Sept. 30. That number has grown by 15 percent since fiscal year 2014.

Hallock said staffing numbers are a problem for health care systems throughout the U.S.

“I think there’s a staffing shortage in health care across the country, especially in the Midwest. We have a shortage of primary care providers, we have a shortage of emergency department providers, we have a huge shortage in psychiatrists,” he said. “And I would say that VA Eastern Kansas is really no different than any other campus that you’re going to find across the country, and that’s not just the VA, but that’s the private sector as well. It affects patient care in that you need to have the providers in order to provide that high-quality, safe patient care.”

A staffing shortage forced the Topeka VA’s ER to close in early January 2014. The shutdown lasted more than 500 days, ending in late June 2015.

According to physician recruiter James Pryan, 47 physicians are assigned to the Topeka VA.

A search last week on usajobs.gov, showed approximately 50 openings at the Topeka VA. At least 11 of those were physician positions in psychiatry, emergency, primary care and other specialties.

Hallock said some of those listings are “open and continuous.” In the event that an employee leaves, the continually open listings help speed up hiring, he said.

Internal VA communications show staffing shortages in the emergency department causes stress for staff figuring out how to cover shifts and concerns about waiting patients.

Hallock said when there’s a shortage, “it requires some creativity in staffing. We all pitch in.”

To address staffing levels, Hallock said the VA relies on a national recruiter and word of mouth. They also highlight that Topeka and Leavenworth are “strong family communities,” he said.

The modernization project also will help attract employees, Hallock added.

Last month, the eastern Kansas VA system initiated the Physicians Ambassador Program. The volunteer program uses the skills of retired doctors.

“We have people in the pipeline that are there, and that’s another mechanism that we are touting out to those physicians in the community,” Hallock said. “You want to keep your skills, come and volunteer with us. Be a physician ambassador from the community and show the veterans how much you care about what they have done for you.”

Working for the VA is mission driven, Hallock said.

“What we try and do at the VA is give (prospective employees) an idea of our mission. Our job is to take care of America’s heroes,” Hallock said.

There’s also a push to increase pay so the positions are more competitive, said VA Eastern Kansas spokesman Joseph Burks.

The women’s health department, through a grant, also is being upgraded. The project is expected to double services for female veterans, Hallock said.