The Military Officers Association of America has joined growing calls in Congress for the Pentagon to scrap or at least postpone plans to cut staff at military hospitals and send retirees out into the community for health care during the novel coronavirus epidemic.
The Defense Health Agency's plans appear to be especially misguided at a time when local hospitals and clinics are being overwhelmed in certain parts of the country with COVID-19 patients, MOAA said in a statement.
"With medical capacity in extraordinary flux across the civilian health care system, it becomes increasingly prudent to officially halt all proposals to transition military families and retirees to civilian providers," it said.
There was no immediate response from the DHA, which has been putting in place a long-range plan to take over management of the 51 military hospitals and 400 clinics worldwide in the Military Health System, while cutting nearly 18,000 medical billets. The facilities have until now been managed by individual military service branches.
The plan would also transfer retiree patients and their families into Tricare community networks, also managed by the DHA, with the intent of having the military health care system focus more on active-duty troops and readiness of the force, according to the Defense Department.
"The unprecedented challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic demand all plans to reduce MHS direct care system capacity cease now; they can be reconsidered at a later date," MOAA said in the statement.
A March 14 letter to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Rep. Ross Spano, R-Florida, urged that the restructuring plan for two military health care facilities in his Tampa Bay district be put on hold.
The current plan would "involve transitioning nearly 30,000 [military retiree] enrollees from their current providers" into a civilian care sector in flux because of coronavirus, Spano said.
The coronavirus outbreak, with a total of more than 163,539 confirmed cases and more than 2,860 deaths in the U.S. as of midday Tuesday according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has already forced the DoD to revise numerous plans as travel restrictions were imposed, joint military exercises were canceled or postponed, and the military was increasingly called upon to bolster the civilian response to the crisis.
The plan to cut medical billets and transfer retirees to Tricare was approved by Congress as part of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017.
DHA officials have since said that the implementation will be "conditions based."
Karen Ruedisueli, director of health affairs at MOAA, said the pandemic's crisis conditions should give the DoD pause.
"It's very clear the nation is turning to DoD for assistance" in combating the threat, she said. “We can’t just hit the pause button on MHS reform – we need a full stop. It doesn’t make sense to think we can pick up with these MTF and billet cuts after the immediate COVID-19 threat is over. Those plans were based on a pre-coronavirus assessment of medical readiness requirements. Any future MHS reforms must consider lessons learned from this pandemic and potentially a new vision for DoD’s role in national medical emergencies.”
Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a full quote to clarify MOAA's position.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.