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DOD says military health care will feel effects of sequester

A DOD official this week told Congress that the sequester will have a significant impact on the military health system.

A Defense Department official this week told a House Armed Services Committee panel that while DOD will not allow sequester cuts to compromise the quality of care provided through the defense health program, those cuts nonetheless will have other effects on the health care system's patients, staff and facilities.

Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, provided the details on those effects in testimony before the committee's Military Personnel Subcommittee at a March 13 hearing held to examine the impact of the sequester, the continuing resolution and declining budgets.

Shifting funds more to patient care will mean dramatic cuts in other areas, Woodson said. To continue day-to-day health care operations, the department will have to slash equipment purchases and make do with existing equipment, he told the panel. DOD also will have to cut back on research and development so it can redirect those funds to patient care.

Perhaps most worrisome is the sequester's potential effect on access to care. Woodson said that while the department will prioritize health care service spending to ensure that the current level of "warrior care" is maintained unchanged, other areas could suffer.

"In patient care areas, nearly 40 percent of our medical staff in military hospitals and clinics is civilian," he stated in prepared testimony submitted jointly with acting Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright. "With some exceptions, these civilians will be furloughed. We can expect the furlough of medical staff will impact access to care—causing inconvenience and dissatisfaction among those patients accustomed to getting their care in military treatment facilities.

"Furthermore," the testimony continued, "patients who formerly received care in a military treatment facility may seek to obtain care in the private sector at an increased cost to the department and the American taxpayer."

According to testimony, current calculations show that sequestration will dock about $3 billion in resources from the Defense health program in the second half of the year—a cut that will produce "negative consequences" in the military health system.

"We are actively looking at plans to mitigate these problems," Woodson stated, "but we do not yet have a plan to avoid all problems unless Congress acts to de-trigger sequestration."

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