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TRICARE Improved; Changes, Challenges Ahead, Leaders Say

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 7, 2002 – Senior DoD leaders Feb. 4 praised improvements made to TRICARE, the military's healthcare system, and also noted the need for new methods and efficiencies to meet anticipated challenges ahead.

Hundreds of military and civilian health care professionals heard remarks by David S.C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness; Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs; and Thomas F. Carrato, TRICARE Management Activity executive director, at the first day of the Feb. 4-7 TRICARE conference here.

The consensus of Chu, Winkenwerder and Carrato was that TRICARE was living up to its 2002 conference theme: "Getting the Job Done for America."

"Nobody does it better than you," Carrato said to the audience. He became TMA executive director on June 7, 2001.

TRICARE has accomplished a lot in the past year, such as establishing TRICARE For Life coverage for beneficiaries over age 65, Carrato noted. At the same time, TRICARE professionals have fixed long-time customer irritants by improving claims processing, establishing a toll-free information line, simplifying pharmacy program co-payments, and more, he said.

Carrato then read a letter from a 75-year-old widow who praised the TRICARE coverage for her breast cancer treatment:

"Thank you so much, thank you to the American taxpayers and to the people who worked so hard to get this assistance measure through Congress. … I cannot express how much I truly appreciate this help, but I hope this letter gives you some idea," the woman wrote.

The woman's letter, Carrato noted, "represents the promise that we've kept, the trust that we've restored, and the vision we've achieved to deliver this kind of high-quality healthcare benefit (to) all of these deserving men and women, these truly great Americans."

Winkenwerder, who came on board Oct. 16, 2001, also praised the quality of healthcare TRICARE provides to its 8.3 million beneficiaries. He noted some challenges for the coming year.

The attacks of Sept. 11 and the anthrax attacks that followed the hijackings "have mobilized our country and the Department of Defense," he said. Military medics and healthcare workers, he noted, "continue to be on the front lines" in today's wartime environment. The quality and the energy of the military medical team are superb, he said, and could be even better. He then outlined his priorities:

o Improve force health protection and medical readiness.

o Improve performance of the TRICARE program.

o Strengthen relationships outside of DoD, such as with the Department of Veterans Affairs.

o Ensure the services recruit the best medical professionals in the world.

"Biological warfare is no longer a theoretical possibility," Winkenwerder said. Consequently, the nation's vaccine policies and programs need to be "greatly bolstered and refocused," he noted.

The Food and Drug Administration recently certified the anthrax vaccine made by Bioport of Lansing, Mich., Winkenwerder remarked. Vaccine production will resume soon, he said.

"We will soon announce our policy within DoD on how we will prioritize the resumption of vaccine efforts," he said, adding, "One thing is certain … the vaccine is safe and it is effective."

DoD's medical readiness training programs for biological, chemical and radiological warfare "demand significant attention," Winkenwerder said. "My goal is that all military health personnel will be trained to recognize and manage chemical and biological agents, depending upon their level and their position."

Winkenwerder added that military medical personnel will also be trained to deal with the consequences of biological or chemical attack on both individuals and entire populations.

Though TRICARE has come a long way, "We've got an opportunity to get (the job done) even better," he noted. He pledged faster identification and solution of problems within the system; better, integrated communications with beneficiaries; and solutions "that put the responsibility on us, not on the beneficiaries, our customers."

Harnessing digitized, Web-based data collection and information services will help improve customer service and provide increased efficiencies for TRICARE, Winkenwerder said.

Addressing efficiency and cost-effectiveness, Chu noted that DoD medical professionals in the future could expect to work with the Department of Veteran Affairs in a DoD outreach effort of working with other federal agencies. For instance, he said, key areas of DoD-VA coordination would include joint procurement of pharmaceuticals and other materials and joint facility use.

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