One theme emerged from multiple military healthy system (MHS) leaders at the recent AMSUS annual conference: Significant change is coming to the MHS, and military health care providers can either embrace and shape that change or somebody else will. “If we don’t shape our future, others will step in and do it for us,” Tom McCaffrey, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs; Defense Health Agency (DHA), and the Uniformed Service University for the Health Sciences (USU) told the audience.
The “historic” changes are underway, as the DHA has already begun to take over control of many military treatment facilities (MTFs) that were formerly operated by the separate services. In the next step of the transition, nearly 250 individual MTFs will be combined—along with TRICARE providers—in 21 geographically based “markets” in order to streamline management and avoid redundancies.
The exact details of the changes in store have not been released. McCaffrey noted that US Department of Defense (DoD) leadership will submit the “framework” for their assessment of the MHS to Congress “very soon, and at that point we will begin the hard work of detailed implementation of the results of that assessment and recommendations from the department.” Changes are expected to continue through fiscal year 2021, and some sources have estimated that as many as 18,000 jobs could be eliminated in the process.
Although Congress drove these changes in the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017, MHS leaders insist they are determining how to make the transformation without hurting medical readiness. “We the senior leadership of the MHS must continue to work together to shape our system to meet the challenges of the new environment,” McCaffrey insisted.
It seems as though all elements of the MHS are on the table. One report has suggested that the USU budget could be cut by a third. “Given the USU’s track record of excellence, we were alarmed to learn that the department is considering cuts as high as 30% to the university’s budget for research, development, testing, and evaluation, and 34% to university operations and maintenance... includ[ing] the cancellation of a $445 million military construction project and closure of the USU medical school,” US senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), Ben Cardin (D-MD.), Jack Reed (D-RI), and Congressman Jamie Raskin (D-MD) wrote in a November 21, 2019, letter to US Department of Defense Secretary Mark Esper. “ These cuts, even if only partially implemented or scaled back, will adversely impact the enterprise across recruitment, retention, access to research funding, and severely impact medical readiness at a time when demand is increasing.”
The medical readiness of military health care providers remains one of the thorniest challenges revolving around the DHA transition. “As an infantryman, from my perspective if you can't maintain effectiveness on the trauma side than it is not worth getting more efficient,” argued LTG (Ret) Jeffrey S. Buchannon, who formerly served as senior commander of Fort Sam Houston, which includes Brooke Army Medical Center, the military’s only level 1 trauma center and 1 of only 2 trauma centers in San Antonio. “We need the home game in order to prepare for the away game,”