President Donald Trump has weighed in on an internal Defense Department discussion over cuts to the military health system, tweeting his objection Monday night to a report that the Pentagon wants to trim $2.2 billion from its health care budget.
The tweet was in response to a story that appeared Sunday in Politico saying DoD officials have proposed cutting health care as part of Defense Secretary Mark Esper's defense-wide review.
Trump said he has "firmly and totally rejected" any such plan.
"A proposal by Pentagon officials to slash Military Healthcare by $2.2 billion dollars has been firmly and totally rejected by me. We will do nothing to hurt our great Military professionals & heroes as long as I am your President," he wrote at 10:30 p.m. Monday.
According to the article, the "armed services, the defense health system and officials at the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness would be tasked to find savings in their budgets to the tune of $2.2 billion for military health."
The story, "Esper eyes $2.2 billion cut to military health care" by Politico staff reporters Lara Seligman and Dan Diamond, cites two "senior defense officials" and other unnamed sources as saying that the effort has been "rushed and driven by an arbitrary cost-savings goal."
"A lot of the decisions were made in dark, smoky rooms, and it was driven by arbitrary numbers of cuts," said one senior defense official with knowledge of the process. "They wanted to book the savings to be able to report it."
The article elicited a swift response Sunday from the Pentagon, with spokesman Jonathan Hoffman calling it "inaccurate and incomplete" on Twitter.
"Secretary [Mark] Esper has neither directed nor reviewed, let alone approved, any cuts to military health care in the upcoming budget or the [Future Years Defense Program]," Hoffman wrote on the social media site.
According to Hoffman, DoD Chief Management Officer Lisa Hershman is developing a plan to cut $5 billion from Pentagon administration to "reinvest in military modernization" and will be "bringing recommendations on a wide range of DoD budget issues (including healthcare) to the Secretary and his leadership team in the coming weeks."
Politico has stood by the article, with Seligman tweeting that the publication "never said Esper had directed the cut."
An hour after the president tweeted about the issue, Esper responded with his own statement on Twitter.
"As we stated yesterday in response to an inaccurate story, I have not directed nor approved any cuts to our military health care system in our future budgets," he wrote. "Furthermore, I will not allow any reductions that would harm access to quality medical care for our service members, their families and our larger DoD community."
The disagreement follows a report last week from Bloomberg, also citing unnamed sources, that Trump is considering replacing Esper following the November election. Esper became defense secretary in July 2019 following the resignation six months before of retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis.
When asked Sunday to confirm whether he has considered firing Esper, Trump said he "considers firing everybody. At some point, that's what happens."
He also had an exchange with a journalist in which he called his defense secretary Mark "Yesper."
"You've had some differences with your defense secretary, Mark Esper. Do you have confidence in his leadership there?" a reporter asked.
"Mark 'Yesper?' Did you call him 'Yesper?' ... Some people call him 'Yesper.' No. I get along with him. I get along with him fine. He's fine," Trump said.
The budget review also comes amid a massive, ongoing overhaul of the military health system designed to refocus the service medical commands on treating military personnel and training medical professionals, while revamping the Tricare health program to serve more nonuniformed dependents and retirees.
The reforms, established in the Fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, call for transferring management of the services' military hospitals and clinics, as well as research and development, to the Defense Health Agency. The 2017 NDAA was crafted before the 2016 presidential election.
The services, however, have started pushing back against the plans, saying portions of the reforms would introduce "barriers, create unnecessary complexity and increase inefficiency and cost."
They want their hospitals back, according to a memo the service chiefs and secretaries sent Esper on Aug. 5.
"The proposed DHA end-state represents unsustainable growth with a disparate intermediate structure that hinders coordination of service medical response to contingencies such as a pandemic," they wrote in the memo.
Lisa Lawrence, a spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said the department plans to continue pursuing reforms as spelled out in the fiscal 2017 defense policy bill.
"The department remains focused on ensuring the services maintain a medically ready force and a ready medical force, as well as [ensuring] all eligible beneficiaries have continued access to quality health care," she said.
After the Politico article was published, Lawrence said the military health system continually assesses how it fits into the National Defense Strategy and will continue to meet its mission.
"Any potential changes to the health system will only be pursued in a manner that ensures its ability to continue to support the department's operational requirements and to maintain our beneficiaries' access to quality health care," Lawrence said.