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Region I Contractor Launches TRICARE Ombudsman Program

By Staff Sgt. Kathleen T. Rhem, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 21, 2000 – The contractor that manages TRICARE in the Northeast has launched a groundbreaking ombudsman program to improve customer service.

Sierra Military Health Services of Baltimore, TRICARE Region 1 administrator, had appointed dedicated customer- service ombudsmen at each TRICARE Service Center in the region by the end of March, company spokeswoman Beth Heid said. Region 1 encompasses the geographic area from Northern Virginia through Maine, including the entire Washington, D.C., area.

DoD TRICARE officials said they hope the ombudsmen will "provide assistance, follow-up, and resolution of critical TRICARE customer-service issues for beneficiaries."

While all customer service representatives help customers, Heid said, Sierra's TRICARE ombudsmen are specially designated to help people who walk in. She said customer service representatives may be helping people on the phone or busy with other issues -- the ombudsman program representative sits with walk-in customers and works face- to-face with them on problems and questions.

The Region 1's 32 TRICARE Service Centers are located within five miles of a military medical treatment facility; some service centers and treatment facilities are co- located. Heid said photos and name plaques of local ombudsmen will be posted prominently in service centers for patients' convenience.

"SMHS is proud to demonstrate the importance we place on delighting our customer and on making it easier for patients to find consistent, thorough answers regarding their healthcare benefits," Sierra President David R. Nelson said. "While we have always focused on providing high levels of customer service, I believe this program is a valuable extra step toward our commitment to the excellent service our customers deserve."

Customer service within TRICARE has drawn a lot of attention in recent months, with senior DoD leaders vowing that "fixing" healthcare for active duty, retirees and their families is a top priority in the fiscal 2001 budget proposal.

Speaking to the annual TRICARE Conference in Washington in January, Army Gen. Henry Shelton, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a group of military and civilian medical professionals that healthcare is one of DoD's "big four" quality-of-life issues -- the pillars of a quality volunteer force. The others are pay and compensation, retirement benefits and housing.

"The bottom line is that our service members and their families must be able to count on their healthcare system," Shelton said. "Our fighting men and women on the front lines of freedom need to know that their families are being taken care of."

"While service members and their families are normally very pleased with the care they receive once they enter into the system, ... they are very frustrated with TRICARE as a system," Shelton said Feb. 8 in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It is quite frankly immensely complex, administratively confusing and not very customer- friendly. Our service members and their families deserve better."

Sierra officials hope the ombudsman program goes a long way in addressing those concerns. "This is part of continually evaluating how we can provide heightened customer service," Heid said.

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