By Claudette Roulo
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 25, 2013 – The U.S. military health system is unique among the world’s military forces, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs said here yesterday.
The system is able to “simultaneously engage in combat, medical operations, support a comprehensive peacetime health system and respond to humanitarian crises around the world,” Dr. Jonathan Woodson told members of the House Appropriations Committee.
Woodson added that “the hard-earned medical lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq have transposed themselves to the civilian environment with life-saving practices that benefit all of American society.”
The medical readiness of the armed forces remains at the center of Defense Department strategy, Woodson said.
“That strategy is coupled with our mission of maintaining a medical-ready force,” he said, “a force of professionals that are well-trained, engaged in ongoing clinical practice and supported by military hospitals and clinics that are operating at optimal medical capacity.”
“As we maintain our readiness, support combat operations and deliver health care services to 9.6 million beneficiaries, we must also be responsible for the budget set we are given,” Woodson said.
Sequestration continues to present significant challenges to the health care system, he said, adding that it would create potentially catastrophic effects if it continues through 2014. Military medicine programs must absorb $3.2 billion in budget cuts over the rest of fiscal year 2013, which ends Sept. 30, Woodson said, a nearly 8 percent reduction. About half of that reduction is coming from the funds available to pay the TRICARE military health plan and private-sector health care providers, he noted.
“In light of this,” Woodson continued, “the department has proposed both internal and external reforms that are further expanding our joint engagement in almost every facet of our operations.”
Internally, he said, the department is reforming how the Military Health System is organized, with the goal of continuing to develop a health care system that integrates the services, the Veterans Affairs Department and the private sector.
“We are charting a collaborative path forward to eliminate redundancies within the Military Health System, improve business practices and clinical outcomes, and effectively manage care for the service members and their families,” Woodson said.
“Externally,” he continued, “the administration is once again asking the military retirees to pay more than they do today for health benefits that they have rightly earned and now receive, but proportionately less than when TRICARE was initiated.”
The department must make tough decisions and determined tradeoffs in an era characterized by more limited resources, Woodson said.
“Our proposals will slow the growth of retiree health benefit costs to the department over time,” he said, “while keeping in place the comprehensive medical benefits that retirees receive, and ensuring that this program is there for future generations.”
The proposed changes do not affect most active duty families, Woodson said.
“Additionally, our proposals exempt the most vulnerable within our retired population, to include families of service members who died on active duty and families of service members who are medically retired,” he noted.
Many challenges lie ahead for military medicine, Woodson said.
“We are working to mitigate the harmful effects of sequestration involving civilian personnel and cuts in vital military research,” he said. “We continue to identify approaches to curb unnecessary utilization of health care services. We are increasing our emphasis on wellness, and we are deepening our collaboration with the Department of Veterans Affairs.”