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MADISON, Wis. – Kelly Wheeler, a Navy veteran and UW Health medical assistant tech, spends three days a week working at her hometown clinic in Cottage Grove giving vaccinations, taking patients’ blood pressure and working with providers to care for patients.
It was a job that she did not think possible right out of her military service, despite having spent the last seven years doing similar work in the Navy, because in most states military health care experience cannot be used to apply to civilian health care roles due to credential and licensing requirements.
Wheeler, 25, was a Navy corpsman from 2016 to '23, meaning she was a medical worker on a military base performing a variety of tasks like dispensing vaccines, analyzing lab samples and assisting in surgeries. She worked in hospitals and clinic settings taking care of current and veteran Navy men and women and their families at two different Naval bases in North Carolina and Illinois.
“I loved my time in the Navy and I followed in my dad’s footsteps enlisting right after high school to be a Navy corpsman like he was,” said Wheeler, who is also a 2016 Monona Grove High School grad. “When I was looking at the next steps in my medical career post-military service, I realized my military health care experience did not apply to civil health care and I would have to start at the beginning with classes and training, and that was daunting.”
A new effort called the Wisconsin Military Medics and Corpsmen Program (Wis-MAC) aims to address that problem. The program was the result of a bipartisan legislative bill signed into law in Wisconsin in March 2022. It temporarily waives the credential and license requirements for eligible Army medics, Navy corpsmen and Air Force techs, allowing them to work in civilian health care roles while they seek additional medical credentials or licenses.
Heroes for Healthcare, a national nonprofit organization that partners with health systems like UW Health to help veterans and military personnel who are medically trained transition into civilian health care roles, led the effort to get the bill and program off the ground.
Medical workers from their respective military fields can work in civilian health care under supervision while going to school for health care roles such as registered nurses, medical assistants or nurse practitioners. To qualify for this program the military personnel need to be within one year of leaving the service and have been honorably discharged.
In Wheeler’s case, she became the first participant in the Heroes for Healthcare program at UW Health and was hired in September 2023. UW Health created a position for Wheeler at the UW Health Cottage Grove clinic where she works three days a week while going to nursing school online the other two days.
“I am grateful I now have a direct path into civilian health care, and it is extra special I get to work in my hometown clinic,” said Wheeler, who is a married mom of two young boys. Her husband, Mitchell, is a U.S. Marine veteran who is now a welder.
“I look forward to becoming a nurse one day and wouldn’t be able to do that without Heroes for Healthcare and UW Health,” she said.
Partnering with this program is personal for Rudy Jackson, chief nurse executive, UW Health, who spent 27 years in the Army primarily as a medic and nurse.
“I was proud to serve my country and I took care of patients in tough situations in a war zone but when I came back to the United States, my civilian health care options were nonexistent,” he said. “I ended up working at Blockbuster. This program bridges a critical gap to help our veterans transition home and I’m proud that UW Health is supporting this effort.”
There are major health care workforce shortages nationwide including in Wisconsin where frontline technical positions are a big challenge, according to the 2023 Wisconsin Health Care Workforce Report, published by the Wisconsin Hospital Association. Registered nurses make up 51% of the workforce in Wisconsin hospitals but they also make up 52% of the vacancies.
With all the health care shortages, this program is an innovative portal for adding more health care workers to the workforce, according to Jackson.
“It’s a win-win for vets and for the health care industry,” he said.
Heroes for Healthcare is a nationwide program and is looking to expand the model they have created in Wisconsin to other states, according to Laura Hanoski, founder and CEO of Heroes for Healthcare.
“It is all about giving back to the community. We need to serve our veterans after they have served us,” she said. “There is a health care worker shortage crisis and there is a great resource of trained medical professionals in the military.”
Wheeler hopes other veterans take advantage of this opportunity.
“Military veterans make great employees who work hard and want to help people,” she said. “This program is a great fit for those transitioning into civilian life.”