Military Medical Retiree Changes, Cuts Should Halt Due to Pandemic: Senator

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In this March 14, 2017 photo, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, questions Marine Gen. Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott/AP Photo)
In this March 14, 2017 photo, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, questions Marine Gen. Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott/AP Photo)

At least one senator wants the Pentagon to delay military medical cuts and a plan to push military retirees and families off base for care in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

"The department has been engaged in a process of downsizing health personnel -- the closure of military medical treatment facilities, the shifting of retiree, military family members' care to Tricare," Rep. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, said in a Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel hearing Wednesday. "In many of these areas, treatment facilities may not be capable of handling the increased patient load. These cuts are happening at the same time of an outbreak of coronavirus and obviously will put a lot of pressure on our system."

Gillibrand's comments were made before the World Health Organization proclaimed the virus, officially known as COVID-19, to be a global pandemic.

The Defense Health Agency (DHA) announced last month plans to cut retirees and military families from receiving care at dozens of military medical treatment facilities (MTFs). Military.com found the process has already begun in some cases.

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The change comes as part of an effort to cut costs and create efficiencies as the military health system transitions to DHA management from service branch control.

Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs who was testifying to the subcommittee Wednesday, assured Gillibrand that the DHA had created a contingency in its plan to reverse course if the surrounding medical community is unable to absorb military retirees and families -- something that could apply during the COVID-19 outbreak.

"The work that went into the right-sizing proposal was done before the onset of coronavirus so it is at that point in time," McCaffery said. "But what we've said, it is conditions-based. Part of that will be if, in the future, our assumptions that went into our proposals have changed, then we will need to change what we proposed."

Gillibrand asked McCaffery to update the Senate Armed Services Committee weekly so lawmakers can ensure the military has enough testing labs, supplies and personnel to respond to the outbreak.

"One of the problems is, you know, New York has the highest number of cases," she said. "Now, their governor is using the National Guard to deliver food and medical supplies so the tax that will be placed on our service members at large will be more significant than now, and it will continue to grow."

Gillibrand isn't the only one raising concerns about the timing of the MTF "right-sizing" plan. Ed Timperlake, a former Department of Veterans Affairs assistant secretary, said via email Thursday he's known several military retiree families who chose their retirement location based on proximity to base medical care.

"To send retirees out to seek new medical connections at the height of a pandemic that actually targets the elderly violates a fundamental military leadership rule: 'Always take care of the troops,'" he said. "It is not about money; the families will be covered. It is about respect for promises made."

-- Dorothy Mills-Gregg can be reached at dorothy.mills-gregg@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @DMillsGregg.

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