It was an ill-timed coincidence last week when soon after the Navy announced it is closing its emergency room at Naval Hospital Oak Harbor, Whidbey General Hospital announced it might stop accepting military people and their dependents who are insured by Tricare.
The loss of the emergency room at the Naval Hospital was given too positive a spin by the military, but in fact it won’t affect very many people. The vast majority of patients will still be taken care of in the new “urgent care clinic.” But since the new clinic won’t be open 24/7 as is the emergency room, it’s possible that a few people injured after hours will have to wait longer for help — until an ambulance arrives and takes them to a civilian hospital, rather than being taken directly to the Navy’s emergency room. In the eyes of Defense Department budget makers, at least, the cost of keeping the emergency room open isn’t worth the benefits it provides and the resulting risk is acceptable.
Of greater interest to most military members and their families is Whidbey General’s threat to stop accepting Tricare because of its low reimbursement rate. The government pays only about one-third of the true cost of medical care, and the hospital is balking at continuing to make up the difference. The threat to end Tricare has been made to the appropriate officials, but whether the hospital will carry through on the threat remains to be seen.
At week’s end, it was clear that medical care for the military wasn’t as good as it was before the week started, and it could get worse. Not surprisingly, the blame rests with the U.S. government.
The government isn’t funding any of its medical programs appropriately, whether it be Medicare, Medicaid, or Tricare of the Veterans Administration. In many cases, medical providers are expected to make up the difference. Eventually the providers break from the financial stress, as indicated by Whidbey General’s threat on Tricare. It’s become a game of chicken, where the government cuts payments and dares the providers to do something about it. Whidbey General, for one, has had enough of this game and can’t be blamed for its position. If it can’t balance its budget it will go out of business.
Perhaps our local public hospital is helping to foment a necessary crisis. But it shouldn’t tackle the Tricare problem alone — it could hurt too many local military families in the process. Instead, Whidbey General should team up with other hospitals and medical providers to send the strongest message possible. Congress won’t act unless there’s an emergency, so it’s time to show them that an emergency exists. That can only be accomplished through teamwork.