- - Tuesday, June 11, 2019

It’s quite rewarding and refreshing to see those who are serving and who have served in uniform be recognized by their fellow citizens with a “Thank you for your service.” But at the same time, it’s most disheartening when our political leaders utter thanks to service members and their families but then turn around and snatch benefits that have been promised to them.

A case in point is the proposed dismantlement of military medicine.

The Defense Department has submitted its fiscal 2020 budget and has proposed eliminating approximately 18,000 medical personnel — a 20 percent reduction. All the military services would be affected. The eliminated medical positions would be transferred to other positions to support the National Defense Strategy.

Here’s the issue: What will be the impact on our military’s readiness? First and foremost, military medicine is a national treasure. Its importance to our country cannot be overstated. The military has a long history of producing medical innovations that have resulted in great benefits for civilian medicine.

But also of importance is the progress that has been made on the battlefield during the last 18 years of war. The medical achievements that have been made in both Iraq and Afghanistan can only be characterized as “extraordinary.”

A 20 percent reduction in military positions would clearly degrade our military’s readiness — the largest consequence being the ability to execute combat casualty care. Our warfighters must have confidence in combat care.

These reductions would also constitute a qualitative change to the entire military health system, clearly impacting medical care of currently serving personnel and their families.

The nonprofit military support group Blue Star Families recently released its survey of 10,000 military families. It was clear respondents had concerns about their health care in the military health care system. Two-thirds of respondents cited health care benefits as one of their top reasons for remaining in the military. But their satisfaction with their ability to access care in a timely manner is a concern. They cited long waits and rushed care. Reducing medical personnel by 18,000 would not help that factor.

So who will provide the care that has been promised to our service members and their families — not to mention the retiree population who was promised this benefit? If the plan is to send them and their families to the civilian sector, many civilian networks are overworked already and simply don’t have the capacity to absorb new patients.

If part of the plan is to contract out military medicine, that raises an entirely new issue of civilian doctors who really don’t fully understand the spectrum of needs facing the military community.

Congress needs to examine this issue very closely before it approves the next budget. Several questions need to be asked:

• Can service medical departments absorb these reductions and still support current operational plans, combat operations and humanitarian aid and disaster relief missions?

• What will be the impact on current medical forces? Will there be more frequent deployments and less time at home with families? And how about the impact on retention of military medical professionals — not to mention recruitment of medical professionals?

• Will the reductions compromise the military health benefit to point where there is no longer a benefit to joining or staying in?

• And what will be the effect on the civilian medical communities associated with these reductions? Do they have the capacity to handle more workload?

The proposal to dismantle military medicine needs a thorough look by Congress.

• Tom Jurkowsky is a retired Navy rear admiral who sits on the board of the nonprofit Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), which advocates for a strong national defense and for military service members. He is an adjunct instructor at Anne Arundel Community College in Annapolis, Md.

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