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TRICARE Marketers Pushed to Sell Plan's Value to Patients

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M., Nov. 5, 1999 – "Twenty-five percent of the beneficiary population doesn't have the foggiest idea of what's going on," Army Dr. (Col.) Ted McNitt warned marketers, publicists and educators attending the TRICARE Communications and Customer Service conference here Nov. 2-4.

Lead agent of the TRICARE central region, which spans the Mountain Time Zone, McNitt said TRICARE faces a stiff challenge to keep its promise of quality health care for all enrollees, wartime readiness of active duty forces and a revolutionary transition from treating to preventing sickness and injury.

Dr. James Sears, director of the TRICARE Management Activity, echoed McNitt's warning. "We still have a lot of problems with people not knowing what TRICARE is," he said. He said most don't realize that even with the advent of managed care contractors in DoD, 70 percent of military health care still comes from DoD medical facilities.

Sears said the ultimate purpose of TRICARE is to support readiness. But he said that includes not only ensuring active duty members are "fit to fight," but that family members are taken care of as well. He said that the Military Health System also needs to be budgeted so it can provide the infrastructure necessary to meet all patient requirements.

"The Defense Health Plan has been underfunded for years," Sears said. He said line support is critical to getting the funding needed and lauded Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for his proactive interest and commitment to TRICARE.

The director called for greater integration of the service medical departments and more efficient use of military medical facilities. He promised to simplify TRICARE and continue to improve the appointment systems and claims process. He said new managed care support contracts coming in spring 2000 will incorporate lessons learned to make TRICARE easier for patients.

But Sears also hailed TRICARE for its successes. He said the plan is in full compliance with the president's Patient Bill of Rights. "We have the best features of a good health maintenance organization with no denial of care," he said.

"TRICARE is better than the old military medical system and less complex than civilian health plans," Sears said. He urged enrollees in Prime, the managed care option, not to make the system more complex than it is. "If you're in Prime, all you really need to know is your primary care manager's phone number and the 1-800 number you need to answer all your other health care questions," he said.

Educating people about TRICARE and making improvements are important to retention, he said, but he downplayed the plan's impact on recruiting. He said recruiters tell him health care is not an issue for potential recruits.

People who list TRICARE as a reason for leaving the service might face huge health care expenses on the outside, Sears warned. "For comparable civilian jobs, 50 percent of the companies would not offer health insurance for families and the other 50 percent would cost you $300 to $400 a month," he said.

"No company offers employees free health care and family members free care or limited costs, but TRICARE does," he said. "We have it within our reach, in the near future, to be the world's best integrated health care system."

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