DOD medical force cut hurts military families

by Lisa Smith Molinari
Special to Stars and Stripes

“Sorry, but you can’t be seen at the military clinic for that anymore,” a health care provider told me last week when she prescribed physical therapy for my back pain. She explained that the clinic was drawing down staff, especially many of its specialists, who will soon only treat active-duty uniformed personnel.

One reason my husband and I decided to stay in Rhode Island after he transitioned out of the Navy two years ago was because we could keep our Tricare Prime insurance and use the military clinic for most of our health care. We bought a house a few miles from base, where we could see the base across the bay, be at the commissary in less than eight minutes and hear the national anthem across the water each morning. We believed that having base services close by would help us transition into civilian life after being active duty for 28 years.

But the writing is on the wall. Literally.

The wall outside the clinic’s family practice desk displays nameplates of the practitioners who can see patients. The list was long when we got stationed here five years ago. Now, there are only a few names left. And active-duty patients take priority, as they should.

From the drawdown of services at our medical clinic, one might think our military base must have less need. On the contrary, Naval Station Newport went through a major expansion as a result of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure recommendations. But our rapidly shrinking medical clinic sits surrounded by the long-abandoned, crumbling buildings that once housed a thriving, full-blown military hospital.

What gives?

In the past few years, both military and civilian contract doctor shortages were reported at military treatment facilities, prompting military hospitals and clinics to reduce services, refer patients to civilian doctors who are also in short supply, and send veterans to VA facilities for treatment.

However, the Pentagon, in its infinite wisdom, has recently declared that there are too many military doctors. Huh? So, they are planning to cut the total number of the combined military medical force by 13 percent. About 17,000 uniformed military billets will be converted to war fighting or combat billets, and the work will be heaped on the remaining military health-care providers.

How does this make any sense? It doesn’t, but unnamed DOD officials claim that reducing the medical force and increasing the workload of the remaining military staff will make them “more suited for battlefield care.” DOD officials are asking us to take a leap across an empty abyss of reason and believe that having fewer doctors will improve quality of care and readiness.

Although senior defense officials claim that the cuts have nothing to do with the billions of dollars that will be saved from the defense budget, it admits that the decision will force more families to turn to civilian health-care providers who are also in short supply.

History may be repeating itself, as evidenced by an Association of the United States Army editorial from 1979. Titled “The Military Doctor Shortage: Is It Real or Just a Management Problem,” it states that “active-duty military people, military retirees and their families have watched a succession of hospitals being downgraded to clinics or have been turned away from military treatment facilities to seek care from civilian sources.”

“We’re short staffed,” my health-care provider confided after examining my back, and we both shook our heads at the sad state of military health care today.

“What will the families stationed here with sick kids, or the flu, or depression do if you can’t see them?” I asked her, wanting to hear that the military will somehow take care of its dependent families.

“They’ll go to urgent care,” she said, “or they simply won’t get care at all.”

Read more of Lisa Smith Molinari’s columns at: themeatandpotatoesoflife.com
Email: meatandpotatoesoflife@googlemail.com

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