TRICARE Access, Customer Service Problems Persist
By Douglas J. Gillert and Lt. Rick Haupt
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Apr. 16, 1999 Military health care quality has never been better, but it's still hard sometimes to see a doctor or get an appointment, Dr. Sue Bailey learned in Southern California March 31.
The assistant secretary of defense for health affairs participated in focus groups with senior military commanders, beneficiaries, and military and civilian health care providers. No problems with the quality of care surfaced in the discussions, but Bailey heard complaints about customer service and how complex and difficult TRICARE is to understand. Yet, she came away from the talks convinced TRICARE has improved military health care overall.
"DoD health care is remarkably better than it was 10 years ago," Bailey said. She cited improved technology, provider training and the emphasis on preventive care as signs military health care is itself, healthier. "The problem is, [TRICARE] is perceived as more complex," Bailey said.
Before TRICARE was implemented in 1995, patients received their care either military hospitals and clinics or through CHAMPUS- authorized providers. TRICARE offers many more choices for treatment, including 15 beneficiary categories.
While not offering specific remedies, Bailey said DoD needs to stabilize and simplify TRICARE and raise customer satisfaction. Members of the focus groups agreed.
"I think we need to simplify TRICARE, especially for our new service members," said Wendy Peterson, quality of life coordinator at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
Better business practices will help improve customer service, Bailey said. This includes answering phones and scheduling appointments quick and courteously, she said.
Independent studies contracted by Health Affairs show TRICARE has improved access and quality of health care while containing costs for both the government and beneficiaries in the Pacific Northwest, where TRICARE began in 1995. There, a survey of more than 10,000 DoD health care beneficiaries found quality up, costs stable and increased reliance upon preventive health service vs. emergency room visits. A major goal of TRICARE is to build a healthier population that is not overly reliant on urgent or acute care.
A similar report is expected later this year on the outcome of TRICARE in Southern California, where the program began in 1996. Surveys will be conducted in each of the regions as they mature, as will follow-up surveys.
This was the eighth in a series of visits Bailey began this year to each TRICARE region in the United States and overseas. She's scheduled to visit the remaining regions by the end of April.
(Navy Lt. Rick Haupt is the public affairs officer for TRICARE Southern California, San Diego.)