Integrating all the services' clinics and hospitals under a common agency has reduced the negative effects of cutting 18,000 medical billets, the head of the Defense Health Agency said Thursday.
Officials have said about 18,000 positions will be cut. That includes roughly 4,000 Air Force, 7,000 Army and 5,000 Navy billets, officials testified in a Dec. 5 House Armed Services subcommittee hearing.
Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, who became the Tricare managing agency's director when Navy Vice Adm. Raquel Bono retired in August, said cutting the billets was not a novel idea suggested by the DHA.
"This is a relatively large change that's being suggested from the individual services, but it's not a new thing," Place said.
In 2017, Congress directed the DHA to manage each service's medical treatment facilities. The transition is more than halfway complete, with the DHA managing clinics across the U.S.
"So our responsibility is to work by, with and through the services both individually as well as collectively," Place said.
He added that Congress' mandated consolidation of the military health system let the services see beyond their siloed care and what their suggested medical cutbacks could do to patient care.
"Oh my goodness," Place recalled saying when looking at the initial plans. "In a couple different locations, each of the services believed that they can take some staff out of this particular area because it's only them."
So the DHA brought the services together and had the officials look collectively at the changes, he said.
"The services came and said, 'You were right, thanks for integrating this. We're going to relook at how we're potentially going to make these changes to our uniform military medical staff,'" he recalled.
Lawmakers drilled into the proposed cuts last month, raising concerns it would affect mental health care for service members and their families.
"I just want you guys to know: That's a lot of billets that are going away," Rep. Trent Kelly, R-Mississippi, said during the Dec. 5 subcommittee hearing. "So we shouldn't just be subtracting, we should be adding in some areas and saying, 'Hey, we can get rid of these folks, but we need more in this area.'"
Place listed the proposed staffing cuts as one of this year's challenges facing the DHA, in addition to the overall transition of military treatment facilities to the agency's control.
He said the proposed staffing cuts are an example of what will happen with consolidation.
"So it is a challenge, no doubt about it," Place said. "The good part about it is there is significantly more inter-service communication with the DHA as the integrator of that -- such that it decreases the risk of potential challenges in the future."
-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.