The Defense Department may close Tricare customer service centers in the U.S. as part of a cost-saving move that would affect hundreds of thousands of troops and their families.
Tricare -- the military health care system -- manages walk-in service centers at bases across the country and around the world. The offices are typically staffed by contractors who help troops and family members navigate any number of medical coverage issues, from changing doctors to resolving billing complaints to registering newborns. At some bases, such as Fort Campbell, Ky., the offices are located in dedicated buildings. At others, such as Fort Bragg, N.C., they are located in the hospital.
The website MilitaryOneClick reported the department planned to begin transitioning those services to toll-free call centers and websites on Oct. 1 and to close all walk-in centers by April 1, citing interviews with unnamed Tricare representatives.
Army Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson, a spokeswoman for personnel and readiness at the Pentagon, on Thursday confirmed the department is considering closing the stateside centers, but said no final decision has been made.
"When the Defense Department announced the creation of the Defense Health Agency, elimination of walk-in service at Tricare Service Centers was one of the proposed actions to increase efficiency," she said in an e-mail. "We are carefully considering this and reviewing all options for most effective customer service.
"However, the plan has not been finalized concerning the implementation or timing of such action," she added. "When plans are finalized, the DHA will inform beneficiaries. I can verify that no changes to Tricare Service Centers overseas are being considered."
The customer service centers are a recommended in-processing stop for the 300,000 troops who, along with their families, report to a new post each year as part of a permanent change of station. That figure is more than 20 percent of the active-duty force of 1.4 million troops.
It was unclear how a shuttering of the centers would affect servicemembers dealing with base-specific issues, such as filing an appeal to see an off-base primary doctor or registering their newborn with Tricare, which is usually done in-person in the office.
News of the possible change drew criticism and disappointment from some military spouses.
"If Tricare will allow you to do everything on the phone or on-line, then face to face isn't necessary," said Amanda French, an Army wife stationed at Fort Campbell. "But the few times I've called, I've been told that I needed to visit the local office."
"Our in-person care center was hugely helpful," said Mya Parker, who is stationed with her family at the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, Calif. "Assuming the care center wouldn't be much help, I spent nearly two months attempting to fix multiple issues over the phone with Tricare. It was only when I spoke to our in-person rep that we made any significant head-way."
But not everyone agreed. Some spouses said that with the exception of a very few issues, such as the primary provider appeal process, the in-person representatives are not very helpful.
"With our appeal, they handed us the paperwork, told us the process, and said they couldn't do really anything else," said Army wife Kelly Wanger, who has used the Fort Campbell Tricare office. "They never really help with our appeals anyway."
"I have always had more luck calling in than actually going in and talking to someone," Sarah Thompson, an Army spouse stationed at Fort Leavenworth said. "At [Fort] Benning ,the face to face people would just send me to the phone."