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Retirees face tough choices in wake of Naval Hospital policy change

By JANIS REID
Whidbey News-Times Staff reporter
March 13, 2014 · 10:29 AM
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Navy retiree Frank Hardy is among hundreds of patients who are being told to switch to a Navy physician for primary health care. / Janis Reid/Whidbey News-Times

Frank Hardy says he probably will never return to the Oak Harbor Naval Hospital for medical care.

After what he claims was a botched 2009 surgery at the hospital, Hardy said he didn’t wake up. Hardy said he was sent to Skagit Valley Medical Center for post-op and follow-up care.

“I don’t know why they call that place a hospital,” said Hardy’s wife, Cherie. “It’s a clinic, if that.”

Following a recent policy change at the naval hospital, all military retirees within a 30-minute drive are required to switch to a primary care physician on base if they want to stay on Tricare Prime insurance.

If those retirees choose to stay with off-base doctors, they are required to switch to the more costly Tricare Standard plan.

The Hardys applied for a waiver to the new policy and were denied. They said they visited the naval hospital last month to talk to the commanding officer and appeal the decision and were again denied.

Before leaving the naval hospital, Hardy revisited the scene of his last visit.

“It freaks me out to walk into that hospital,” Hardy said. “I went by the room I had laid in. It strikes terror into both of us.”

The Hardys opted to switch to Tricare Standard and subscribe to an additional insurance policy through Frank’s private sector employer.

But not all retirees have that option, Hardy said.

Capt. Edward Simmer, commanding officer of the Naval Hospital, said he is aware that some retirees have had “less than perfect” experiences at the hospital in the past, but is adamant that the hospital can, and will, do better.

Simmer faced more than one room of angry retirees last month after the policy change was announced.

In addition to the Tricare change, Simmer has also overseen the shutdown of the emergency room, an expansion of the birthing center and extension of hours for urgent care.

The naval hospital also signed agreements with Whidbey General Hospital in Coupeville and North Island Medical to allow Navy physicians and surgeons to perform procedures off base.

Hardy, however, said he thinks Simmer’s hard line approach to the Tricare Prime policy has turned into a “black eye” for the Navy.

“I regret they feel that way,” Simmer said in response.

Of 750 letters that were sent to retirees, about 70 applied for waivers and about 25 are approved so far.

Asked why he is holding firm for fewer than 50 patients, Simmer said he tries to apply the same criteria in each case and be “fair” in his choices.

Hardy is not alone in expressing concerns that the naval hospital is making changes without considering the needs of patients.

“I feel like they are playing with people’s lives and they have that cavalier attitude about it,” Hardy said. “It’s the retirees who are getting the shaft.”

Over the years, retirees endured a history of being pulled on and off of base for care, based on the naval hospital’s capacity to care for them, according to Navy retiree and former naval hospital physician Dan Fisher.

A number of retirees also voiced concerns about active- duty physicians who are constantly rotating out every three years as their Navy assignments change.

“Many of the folks I see don’t want the constant turnover,” Fisher said. “They want the consistency of care. People want a good doctor they can keep. Not a doctor they are assigned.”

“That’s my beef with military medicine,” he said. “We promise people we will keep doctors there and eventually something comes up they’re not.”

The naval hospital saw 141,275 outpatients last fiscal year and employs 12 family medicine physicians and four pediatricians. Of those 16 doctors, 12 are active duty.

Also, more than half the support staff of physician assistants, nurses and administrative employees are active duty as well.

“In most cases, it’s probably true” that some retirees will be subject to turnover of Navy doctors, Simmer said, but he insisted that, under the “team based” model, the hospital staff can offer more consistent care than before.

“That’s what spooks me about going back, you never know what you’re going to get,” Hardy said.

Retiree Ron Hewitt has only been to the naval hospital for care once, on referral, since he leaving active service in 2003.

Hewitt said he was diagnosed with a chronic illness in 2005 and has seen the same off-base primary care physician for 10 years.

Hewitt said his wife, Mary, had some “very bad experiences” with care at the naval hospital in the past and is also seeing a physician off base.

Wanting to keep their doctors under the recent Tricare changes, Hewitt said he and his wife applied for a waiver last month and were denied both the waiver and their appeal.

“The guy had no interest in listening to what we had to say,” Hewitt said.

Hewitt said his biggest concern is that he’s had the same physician for nearly 10 years, and going on base for care will likely mean a revolving door of active-duty physicians.

“Every time I go, I’m going to see someone different,” Hewitt said. “My whole thing is continuity of care. I’m going to be reduced to numbers and words on a piece of paper.”

Hewitt said it is unclear whether he and his wife will seek additional coverage, remain with the naval hospital on Tricare Prime, or downgrade to Tricare Standard and pay higher premiums to keep their doctors.

“My wife wants to give it a couple of months,” Hewitt said.

 

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