KITTERY, Maine — Upwards of 1,175 Portsmouth Naval Shipyard health clinic patients may be forced to find new health care due to a military-wide medical facility patient realignment, according to the nation’s Defense Health Agency.
Twenty-nine military outpatient hospitals and clinics nationally, including the Naval Branch Health Clinic at the local shipyard, would become accessible for active duty military personnel only, according to a Department of Defense plan. The restructuring would boot mainly military retirees and eligible veterans from receiving care at the affected medical facilities.
According to Peter Graves, spokesperson for the Defense Health Agency, the realignment was outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, and clinic space would allow for some relatives of active duty personnel to receive care at the clinics.
Graves said 2,103 shipyard patients currently use the 55,500-square-foot outpatient clinic, a $30 million building completed in July 2021. More than half of them would be displaced, forcing them to find new health services through the TRICARE private sector care network, the health care program managed by the Defense Health Agency.
According to the shipyard, the Naval Branch Health Clinic is a medical and dental clinic that offers 19 health care services, including primary care and occupational and behavioral health, in addition to a pharmacy.
“Military hospitals and clinics exist to keep combat forces ready to deploy and to sustain the readiness of medical personnel to support military requirements. Military hospitals and clinics are critical enablers of combat readiness,” Graves said in a prepared statement. These facilities care for service members to ensure they are medically ready to train and deploy. They are also vital training grounds for military medical personnel, building and sustaining the clinical skills and experience to prepare them for deployment in support of combat operations.”
Rep. Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, who sits on the US House of Representatives’ Veterans’ Affairs committee, is speaking out in opposition to this change. Pappas called the plan “deeply concerning,” expressing doubt that the local medical and dental care network can easily take on the affected patients.
“I don’t think the capacity is there, and I think this is a wrongheaded decision that really disregards the service of our veterans,” he said.
The news about the health clinic comes as dozens of Portsmouth Naval Shipyard civilian employees are losing access to child care services on the local base in another Department of Defense change.
When would the health clinic changes take place?
The realignment of health clinics would not be implemented until at least January 2023. Graves said the Military Health System has 9.6 million patients, a fraction of whom will need to find new care.
“In the months ahead, the Military Health System will provide our affected beneficiaries the support they need to facilitate a smooth transition to civilian providers through the TRICARE program,” he said.
Two years ago, the Department of Defense released a list of military medical facilities targeted for restructuring, including the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard site. Planning for the potential realignment was paused in April 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Pappas responded when the realignment of the medical facilities was added to the Department of Defense budget for fiscal year 2021, known as the National Defense Authorization Act. The congressman authored a provision calling for a report from the Department of Defense on how it would execute the proposed changes.
Sent by Gilbert R. Cisneros, the US Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, the report was finalized and presented to the various congressional defense committees on July 1 this year.
The Department of Defense estimated the health care realignment would affect 155,000 patients nationwide. Following implementation next year, the department wrote the realignment is expected to be completed by Sept. 30, 2026.
“The purpose of this program is to increase the readiness of our operational and military medical forces while not diminishing the quality and access to care received by our TRICARE beneficiaries,” the report states.
Members of Congress have 180 days to accept or deny the findings of the report, according to Graves.
Pappas said this year’s defense spending bill, a $839 billion package, passed the House of Representatives earlier in the month and is being reviewed by the US Senate.
By working with members of the Senate, Pappas said, language could be added to this year’s defense bill to prevent the military retirees and veterans from being blocked from the health care they’ve been receiving.
“We need to act quickly here,” he said.
Only veterans who are dual-eligible for TRICARE are currently eligible for care at the shipyard’s outpatient clinic, Graves specified. All TRICARE-eligible beneficiaries across the country would still be able to use military medical facilities’ pharmacy and laboratory services after being removed from their respective military base’s care clinic.
“(The Department of Defense) will monitor network access and quality standards and slow or halt transitions, as necessary, to ensure beneficiaries continue to receive access to quality health care,” Graves said.
The Defense Health Agency has not notified patients who would be affected by the realignment, he added. Graves said the agency, in addition to the shipyard, would send letters to affected patients “at appropriate intervals in the implementation timeline.”
Pappas: Realignment would hurt military recruitment, medical providers
Pappas said he would look to team up with members of New Hampshire and Maine’s congressional delegations to “register opposition” to the Department of Defense’s plan. Issues related to Portsmouth Naval Shipyard have historically been a bipartisan focus between members of the bordering states’ delegations.
“They talk about military readiness. That just doesn’t make sense to me,” Pappas said. “We know that most branches of the military are having trouble recruiting, and I think this would have a chilling effect on military recruitment.”
The two-term congressman said the realignment could reduce service for medical providers who are required to reach a certain number of hours at work.
“We’re going to look at any avenue possible to prevent this change from happening,” he said.
The shipyard’s outpatient facility is a branch of Naval Health Clinic New England, which is based in Newport, Rhode Island, and serves active duty members, retirees and eligible family members.
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