Portsmouth Dockyard Health Clinic could exclude vets and pensioners

KITTERY, Maine – More than 1,175 patients at the Portsmouth Dockyard Health Clinic may be forced to seek new health care due to a realignment of patients at a military-scale medical facility, according to the Defense Country Health Agency.

Twenty-nine military outpatient hospitals and clinics nationwide, including the local shipyard’s Naval Branch Health Clinic, would become accessible only to active-duty military personnel, according to a Defense Department plan. The restructuring would primarily prevent eligible military retirees and veterans from receiving care at affected medical facilities.

According to Peter Graves, spokesman for the Defense Health Agency, the realignment was outlined in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2021, and the clinic space would allow some relatives of serving personnel active to receive care in the clinics.

Graves said 2,103 shipyard patients currently use the 55,500-square-foot outpatient clinic, a $30 million building completed in July 2021. More than half of them would be relocated, forcing them to find new healthcare services through the private sector healthcare network TRICARE, the healthcare program run by the Defense Health Agency.

According to the shipyard, the Naval Branch Health Clinic is a medical and dental clinic that offers 19 health care services, including primary care and occupational and behavioral health, in addition to a pharmacy.

“Military hospitals and clinics exist to keep combat forces ready to deploy and to maintain the readiness of medical personnel to meet military needs. Military hospitals and clinics are critical enablers of combat readiness,” Graves said in a prepared statement. “These facilities take care of service members to ensure they are medically ready to train and deploy. They are also vital training grounds for military medical personnel, who develop and maintain the clinical skills and experience necessary to prepare them for deployment in support of combat operations.

Rep. Chris Pappas, D-New Hampshire, who serves on the U.S. House of Representatives Veterans Affairs Committee, opposes the change. Pappas called the plan “deeply concerning,” expressing doubts that the local medical and dental network could easily care for affected patients.

“I don’t think the capacity is there, and I think it’s a wrong decision that really disregards the service of our veterans,” he said.

News of the health clinic comes as dozens of civilian workers at Portsmouth Dockyard lose access to childcare services on the local base in another MoD change.

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When would the health clinic changes take place?

The realignment of health clinics would not be implemented until at least January 2023. Graves said the military health system has 9.6 million patients, a fraction of whom will need to find new care.

“In the coming months, the military health system will provide our affected beneficiaries with the support they need to facilitate a smooth transition to civilian providers through the TRICARE program,” he said.

Two years ago the Ministry of Defense released a list of military medical facilities targeted for restructuring, including the Portsmouth Dockyard site. Planning for the potential realignment was halted in April 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Pappas responded when the realignment of medical facilities was added to the Defense Department’s fiscal year 2021 budget, known as the National Defense Authorization Act. The congressman drafted a provision calling for a report from the Department of Defense on how it would execute the proposed changes.

Sent by Gilbert R. Cisneros, the US Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, the report was finalized and presented to various congressional defense committees on July 1 of this year.

The Department of Defense estimated that the health care realignment would affect 155,000 patients nationwide. Following implementation next year, the department wrote that the realignment is expected to be completed by September 30, 2026.

“The goal of this program is to increase the readiness of our operational and military medical forces without diminishing the quality of and access to care received by our TRICARE beneficiaries,” the report states.

Members of Congress have 180 days to accept or reject the report’s findings, according to Graves.

Pappas said this year’s defense spending bill, an $839 billion package, passed the House of Representatives earlier this month and is being considered by the US Senate.

Working with members of the Senate, Pappas said, language could be added to this year’s defense bill to prevent military retirees and veterans from being locked out of the health care they receive.

“We need to act quickly here,” he said.

Only veterans who are doubly eligible for TRICARE are currently eligible for care at the shipyard’s outpatient clinic, Graves said. All TRICARE-eligible beneficiaries across the country could still use pharmacy and laboratory services at military medical facilities after being removed from the care clinic at their respective military base.

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“(The Department of Defense) will monitor network access and quality standards and slow or stop transitions, as necessary, to ensure beneficiaries continue to receive quality health care,” Graves said.

The Defense Health Agency has not notified patients who would be affected by the realignment, he added. Graves said the agency, in addition to the shipyard, would send letters to affected patients “at appropriate intervals in the implementation schedule.”

Pappas: Realignment would hurt military recruiting, medical providers

Pappas said he would seek to team up with members of congressional delegations from New Hampshire and Maine to “register opposition” to the Department of Defense plan. Portsmouth Dockyard issues have always been a bipartisan concern among members of border state delegations.

“They talk about military preparation. It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Pappas said. “We know that most branches of the military are struggling to recruit, and I think that would have a chilling effect on military recruiting.”

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The two-term congressman said the realignment could reduce services for medical providers who must meet a certain number of hours.

“We are going to look at all possible avenues to prevent this change from happening,” he said.

The Naval Shipyard Outpatient Facility is a branch of the Naval Health Clinic New England, which is based in Newport, Rhode Island, and serves active duty members, retirees and eligible family members.

Are you interested in Portsmouth Dockyard and its community connections? Are there any questions you would like answered? Please email news@seacoastonline.com or reporter Ian Lenahan at ilenahan@gannett.com with “Portsmouth Naval Shipyard” in the subject line.

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