Forum Lets Families Tell It Like It Is
By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Jun. 2, 2000 Despite all the top brass, the 100 service members and spouses who came to the Pentagon for the first Defense Secretary's Military Family Forum definitely weren't shy.
They didn’t hesitate to tell it like it is.
Throughout the day-long forum May 31, the families spoke out on the issues that affect their daily lives. Active duty and reserve component service members and spouses alike said they need better housing, and they stressed that DoD urgently needs to fix TRICARE.
DoD policy makers encouraged the families to speak their minds. "We need to know from you what it is we can do better," Defense Secretary William S. Cohen said. "This is not a media event. This is an opportunity for you to tell us exactly what you think and find ways we can improve our programs."
The secretary's wife and co-host, Janet Langhart Cohen, encouraged participants to be open and candid about their ideas, concerns and needs. "This is your forum," she said. "This is our opportunity to hear you. And hopefully, it's an opportunity for you to share jointly some of your programs and ideas that your are already working on in your respective services."
Three panels presented information on pay and compensation, financial stability, education, commissary and exchange benefits and other topics. Bernard Rostker, DoD's new assistant defense secretary for personnel and readiness, then opened the floor to questions.
Service members and family members throughout the audience eagerly raised their hands to ask the DoD officials about pay changes, exchange services, uniform store hours, commissary benefits and much more. If the DoD officials couldn't answer a question on the spot, they promised to follow up.
When the agenda hit housing, the families' comments and questions became more personal.
"We live in government housing, and since October, my roof has leaked," an Army spouse said. "They've patched it, but the patches don't hold. I was promised a new roof in March, but I don't have it. At this point, they won't even return my calls anymore. I want to know what I can do to get that roof fixed."
One official told the woman to talk to her base engineers and installation commander. Rostker stepped in, saying he'd revert to his old hat as Army undersecretary and see what he could do. Before the day was over, Rostker reported to the group that base public works officials had already been out to the woman's house to deal with her leaky roof.
Randall A. Yim, deputy undersecretary of defense for installations, acknowledged housing is a major problem and gave an update on the situation. "Housing is not a benefit," he stressed. "Housing is an obligation. It's part of the deal when you signed up."
The services own and operate about 300,000 family quarters on base worldwide that accommodate about one-third of the military's families. The average age of on-base housing is about 35 years and DoD itself calls two-thirds of it inadequate and in need of renovation or replacement. "Some places are black holes we put Band-Aids on," Yim said.
He told the group he's relayed stories to members of Congress about military wives breaking into tears when they saw the condition of the quarters they'd been assigned. "That vignette alone has made us more money than any other story I could tell."
Improving housing is a top priority, Yim said. The department wants to have a strong military construction program and to partner with the private sector to leverage its housing dollars and provide housing quicker.
About two-thirds of the military's families live off-base and receive basic allowance for housing. Members' out-of-pocket expense for off-base housing is about 19 percent. DoD intends to reduce this to zero by 2005, Yim said.
When TRICARE took center stage, Mary Gerwin, deputy assistant defense secretary for health affairs, said she'd been asked earlier that morning if she was going to attend wearing a bulletproof vest.
"DoD is doing everything it can to make TRICARE a more consumer- friendly" system," she said. Military people tend to rate the quality of the care they receive as high, she said, but access is a problem. There are long lines, and long waits on the telephone to get appointments.
DoD is doing a number of things to make those practical problems go away and to make the system easier to deal with, Gerwin said. DoD is working with hospitals and clinics, for instance, to make sure there are enough appointments available, to lengthen clinic hours, and to ensure doctors have enough support staff in their examining rooms so they can triage three or four patients at a time.
"I've heard comments that doctors, nurses and other health professionals don't want to do business with TRICARE because they think it's too much of a hassle," Gerwin said. DoD is trying to fix the claims system by simplifying forms and making payments faster. DoD also is working to eliminate the co-pay required by civilian providers and to expand the program to retirees.
When the floor opened for questions, an Air Force wife related her family's ongoing TRICARE nightmare. She said her 20-month- old son has had two open heart surgeries in the last year and the family has gotten bills totaling $50,000.
"My heart surgeon hasn't been paid in over a year," she said. She reported that claims have been repeatedly denied because of glitches on the forms and a variety of other reasons. TRICARE officials she called had been rude and unhelpful.
"These initiatives are too late," the wife told Gerwin. "Too many people have been damaged."
This statement drew resounding applause from the 99 other family members in the auditorium. Later that evening, at a dinner hosted by the Cohens, the woman said several DoD health affairs representatives had promised to work on her case.
"I want to stress that my son is getting the best of care, and it's supposed to be paid for through TRICARE," she said. "I didn't think anyone would take a personal interest in my problem. The only reason why I highlighted it was to give them an example of how TRICARE can be so awful.
"We're very lucky to come here," she added. "I just feel bad because I know there are other people in my boat who can't get such personalized attention." Her husband emphasized that a big part of their struggle was that no one, including base officials, knew who to go to for help.
While housing and TRICARE topped family members' concerns, they also asked about other areas.
- A Navy reservist noted that the reserve component did not receive commissary cards, due out in January,until April because of a shortage of card stock. Charles L. Cragin, acting assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, acknowledged the problem and assured the group it would not happen again. He also pointed out that a year ago Congress increased the number of reservists' shopping days from 12 to 24 per year, information that may not have reached everyone.
- A Navy petty officer stationed in Spain asked about restrictions on certain exchange items being shipped overseas. He learned a new program is being rolled out in the next two months that will allow shipment of furniture and other previously restricted items.
- A Marine Corps wife said people would like to see less expensive children's clothing in the exchange. She said at her base, there's a mass exodus to WalMart each weekend. She was advised to talk to her installation commander and the base exchange officer, who are responsible for tailoring the store's stock to community needs.
- An Air Force wife asked if the commissary could offer more generic brands instead of expensive name brands. Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert J. Courter Jr., Defense Commissary Agency director, told her his agency is instituting a Best Values Program, where national brands must beat the price of private brands. Within the next month, he said, commissaries will identify which national brands beat all the competitors.
At a press conference following the close of the forum, Staff Sgt. Joseph Berryhill of Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., and Kelli Kirwan, wife of Marine Corps Gunnery Sgt. Charles Kirwan, assigned to Camp Pendleton, Calif., summed up the day's program.
"When I found out I was coming here, it being an election year, [I thought] there might be a lot of lip service, that this was just for the press," Berryhill said. "All we have seen today is the sincere opportunity to bring forth all issues, from all services, that will make the quality of life for all DoD employees better."
Kirwan, a self-proclaimed Air Force brat, said a strong spirit of cooperation developed during the forum. "I'm excited about the potential for future family forums because it's (a way of) keeping our senior leadership in touch with what's happening with their troops. And if the troops and the senior leadership are in line with what's happening, we've got a straight shot at mission success."