Retirees upset over changes at Naval Hospital

A room with nearly 60 retirees criticized Capt. Edward Simmer for policy changes made at Oak Harbor Naval Hospital. - Janis Reid / Whidbey News-Times
A room with nearly 60 retirees criticized Capt. Edward Simmer for policy changes made at Oak Harbor Naval Hospital.
— image credit: Janis Reid / Whidbey News-Times

Whidbey retirees berated the Oak Harbor Naval Hospital’s commanding officer Wednesday for making them change their primary care physician to one on base.

Nearly 60 military retirees voiced their frustration at a meeting at the Chief’s Club about changes to the hospital’s policies that go into effect March 1.

Capt. Edward Simmer gave a brief presentation followed by questions and scoldings from retirees who felt they were not given appropriate notice and that the new policy is unfair.

“Shame on you!” said one outraged retiree.

Their primary concerns involved being “jerked around” by the naval hospital which, according to several retirees, has a history of moving retiree care on and off base. They also voiced concerns that naval hospital care has been inconsistent because active-duty doctors are frequently reassigned.

Simmer acknowledged that this may have happened in the past, but added that he is “convinced that if you give us a second chance, we are going to give you great care.”

Simmer said that the change is part of recent hospital expansions in preparation for the roughly 2,000 active-duty personnel and 4,500 family members that are expected with new squadrons arriving in 2015 and 2016. Simmer said the hospital is now equipped to care for all retirees within a 30minute drive, and that it’s the Navy’s policy to keep retirees’ primary care physicians on base.

“We can reassign them, largely because we have the space,” Simmer said in a phone interview.

Dustin Amundson, a Navy retiree, said it seems like the naval nospital is using this policy to fill beds until the new squadrons arrive.

“We were kicked to the curb by the naval hospital and now they want us back,” Amundson told Simmer. “Giving us two bad choices is not a choice.”

Roughly 750 patients on Tricare Prime insurance were informed this month that they will be required to switch to an on-base doctor or downgrade their insurance plan to Tricare Standard if they live within a 30 minute drive.

“It feels like a reduction in services,” Amundson said in a phone interview.

Under the new policy, Amundson and his wife who live in Oak Harbor will both have to stop seeing doctors they have seen for years to stay on the higher grade health plan.

“It’s certainly not easy to change doctors and there are a few things we are doing to ease the transition,” Simmer said. “We understand this is a change that might be difficult for folks.”

Those who wish to apply for a waiver to the new program can do so to keep their existing doctor on the same plan, but there is no guarantee a waiver will be approved.

Simmer, who completes his assignment to the hospital in seven months, said retiree waivers can be denied if he determines that the naval hospital can “safely provide care for them.” Those affected are encouraged to make an appointment and meet with some of the doctors to see if they can find a good fit, Simmer said.

In the face of Wednesday’s criticism, Simmer defended the policy that he said was “very carefully looked at” and was, at least in part, financially motivated.

“I’ll be up front with you, these changes are going to save us some money,” Simmer told retirees.

Amundson said that there are likely be those who are happy about the policy change and that he himself is a “diehard” Navy supporter.

“But for those of us who aren’t (happy), it seems like this wasn’t well thought out,” Amundson said.

“They referred to me as a number, and its seems like it’s a drive for physicians to see more patients. Nothing in this says that it’s in the best interest for the patient.”

Hospital changes have included closure of the hospital’s Urgent Care Center, an expansion of the Medical Home Port Primary Care Center and its hours and an expansion, upgrade of their birthing center and the addition of a 24-hour nurse hotline.

The Navy will also partner with area hospitals so that Navy surgeons can perform operations at civilian hospitals that are better equipped for such procedures and have Intensive Care units, which the naval hospital does not.

For more information, call the Naval Hospital at 360-257-9974.


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