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Communication Key in Making TRICARE Better, DoD Health Official Says

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 6, 2003 – It's important that leaders and communicators at TRICARE -- the Defense Department's health care plan are on the same page in providing accurate, timely information to beneficiaries and other audiences, DoD's top health care official said here Nov. 4.

Speaking at a TRICARE communications training conference, Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr. said that he considers "all aspects of communications to be one of the most important responsibilities that I have as the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs."

Communicating effectively, Winkenwerder pointed out, relies on leadership participation, advocacy and accuracy.

Assembling a good communications staff is a paramount component in getting the word out to TRICARE's audiences "in order to make a strong program even better," he said.

Yet, a good communications program "also requires a leadership team" that provides resources, planning and execution guidance for information campaigns, Winkenwerder noted.

An example of such leadership, he explained, is demonstrated with the new generation of TRICARE contracts signed just this August, "in which we assume primary responsibility for communications development and product distribution."

The new contracts, which are slated for implementation starting June through November 2004, consolidate 11 stateside TRICARE regions into three uniformly managed North, South and West regions.

TRICARE providers, Winkenwerder continued, will also strive to reduce customers' claims times, bolster quality of care and improve customer service at both stateside and overseas medical facilities.

And more business will be directed to military treatment facilities, he continued, which will also increase emphasis on customer service.

Communicators "are in the vanguard" of getting the word out about TRICARE improvements, Winkenwerder said, adding the conference "is another one of our investments and this time that investment is in you."

Information about TRICARE is targeted to active duty, reserve component, family member and retiree beneficiaries, Winkenwerder noted, as well as military, civilian, and contractor health care providers.

DoD military and civilian leaders also receive TRICARE communications products, he pointed out, as well as civilian and internal DoD media, veterans organizations, state governments, and members of Congress.

For credibility's sake, Winkenwerder noted, it's important to provide accurate, timely information to audiences to include reporters. However, he added, because of the inherent complexities involved with an organization of TRICARE's size and scope, it's best to place accuracy over speed when providing information.

Regarding the release of so-called bad news to the media, Winkenwerder said he subscribes to the philosophy of Victoria Clarke, the former chief of DoD public affairs.

Winkenwerder recalled that she once said bad news does not improve with age. So she believed it was important to release "uncomfortable" news along with good news as soon as possible.

With about 9 million beneficiaries and an annual budget of around $27 billion, Winkenwerder noted that TRICARE is a global operation with "a vast set of audiences with whom we must communicate."

It's essential, therefore, that TRICARE leaders and communications professionals "ensure that we have an integrated, consistent and tailored communications plan that thinks about and addresses all of those audiences," he concluded.

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