Hagel Orders Improvements in Military Health Care

Oct. 1, 2014 | BY Cheryl Pellerin , DOD News

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered improvements in the Military Health System, saying a 90-day review of the system that found it comparable in access, quality and safety to care offered on average in the private sector is not good enough for service personnel and their families.

“We have the finest military in the world,” Hagel said during a briefing today on results of the review. “Our men and women in uniform and their families deserve the finest health care in the world.”

In May, the defense secretary ordered a comprehensive review of the Military Health System, or MHS, to be led by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work.

It sought to assess whether access to medical care in the MHS met defined standards, whether the quality of health care in the MHS met or exceeded defined benchmarks, and whether the MHS had created a culture of safety with effective processes for ensuring safe and reliable care of beneficiaries.

Pockets of excellence

“The review found pockets of excellence, significant excellence which we're very proud of,” Hagel said, “and extraordinary doctors, nurses and staff who are deeply dedicated to the patients they serve.”

But he said, “It also found gaps, however, and facilities that must improve.”

The bottom-line, the secretary said, “is that the military health care system provides health care that is comparable in access, quality and safety to average private-sector health care. But we cannot accept average when it comes to caring for our men and women in uniform and their families. We can do better; we all agree that we can do better.”

Hagel said he’s directing the department to take steps to ensure that the entire military health care system is not just an average system but a leading one.

First steps

“These are first steps but they will help our hospitals and clinics foster a stronger culture of safety, quality and accountability,” he added, “a culture that must become second nature to all who execute DoD's critical health care system and our mission.”

Hagel has also directed all health care facilities identified as outliers in categories of access, quality and safety to provide action plans for improvement within 45 days.

The secretary has also directed Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, and the military services surgeons general to ensure that the department has unified standards for purchased and direct care.

Hagel also ordered them to establish a mechanism by which patients and concerned stakeholders can provide ongoing input.

System-wide performance management

“I’m also directing the department's health care leadership to establish a system-wide performance management system that will help scrutinize lapses and monitor progress,” the secretary added. “And to enhance transparency I'm requiring that all … data on our health care system be made publicly available.”

By the end of the year, Hagel said, DoD will have a detailed implementation plan to ensure that MHS becomes the top-performing system those in the department expect it to be and want it to be.

Work said the Defense Department has no higher priority than its men and women.

Sacred compact

“They are the true secret weapon that the United States has … and they deserve the finest health care that we can possibly provide. It's a critical part of the sacred compact that we have made … and when the secretary asked me to do this I was actually quite excited.”

Work said he was born into a Marine family and experienced the MHS in the continental United States and oversea, as a Marine, through NROTC, and later as a Marine with a family -- wife who is a former Army nurse and a daughter.

“I feel that I have a lot of firsthand experience on what this system provides. I know it pretty well and I share the secretary's commitment on getting it right,” he said.

Work said the department was happy to hear that its health care system is comparable on average with the national civilian health care system.

A leading organization

“But as the secretary said, he does not expect us to be average. He wants us to be a leading organization and he has tasked us to do so,” Work added and said that after meeting with veterans’ service organizations and other interested groups, the department now has a good idea about areas where improvements are needed.

“This will be the start of a process in which we all commit ourselves to becoming a leading organization.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)