The U.S. military is devising major reductions in its medical corps, unnerving the system’s advocates who fear the cuts will hobble the armed forces’ ability to adequately care for health problems of military personnel at home and abroad.
The move inside the military coincides with efforts by the Trump administration to privatize care for veterans. The Department of Veterans Affairs last month proposed rules that would allow veterans to use private hospitals and clinics if government primary care facilities are not nearby or if they have to wait too long for an appointment.
Shrinking the medical corps within the armed forces is proving more contentious and complex. In 2017, a Republican-controlled Congress mandated changes in what a Senate Armed Services Committee report described as “an under-performing, disjointed health system” with “bloated medical headquarters staffs” and “inevitable turf wars.” The directive sought a greater emphasis for military doctors on combat-related needs while transferring other care to civilian providers.
Details of reductions have yet to be finalized, a military spokeswoman said. But within the system and among alumni, trepidation has increased since Military.com, an online military and veterans organization, reported in January that the Department of Defense had drafted proposals to convert more than 17,000 medical positions into fighting and support positions — a 13 percent reduction in medical personnel.
“That would be a drastic first cut,” said Dr. David Lane, a retired rear admiral and former director of the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.
At most risk in the current planning are positions that aren’t considered essential to troops overseas, such as training spots for new doctors and jobs that can be outsourced to private physicians and hospitals — obstetricians and primary care doctors, for example. The reductions may also limit the military’s medical humanitarian assistance and relief for foreign natural disasters and disease outbreaks.
Even in war zones, Lane warned, it would be a mistake to downplay the importance of contributions by doctors who do not specialize in trauma. In the 1991 invasion of Kuwait, for instance, cases of diseases and non-battle injuries rather than combat injuries created the most medical work, he said.
Doctors who train in the military’s highly regarded medical school — who have committed to serve in the armed forces after training— and those who do military residencies account for much of the staff serving troops overseas. A major deployment could leave the military flatfooted, said Dr. John Prescott, a former Army physician.
“The majority of folks in the military don’t stay in for their whole career, they stay in for a few years,” Prescott said. “I’m concerned there will be a very small cohort that will be available for deployment in the future.”
The military health system is responsible for more than 1.4 million active-duty and 331,000 reserve personnel, with 54 hospitals and 377 military clinics around the world. Split among the Navy, Army and Air Force, each with its own doctors and hospitals, the service has been targeted for years for overhaul to reduce redundancies and save costs.
The department has already started moving administrative functions under one bureaucracy, called the Defense Health Agency, which is slated to take over the service branch hospitals in 2021.
The budget for the next fiscal year is still being developed and final decisions have not yet been made, a Department of Defense spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Carla Gleason, said in an email. “Any reforms that do result will be driven by the Department’s efforts to ensure our medical personnel are ready to provide battlefield care in support of our forces, and to provide the outstanding medical benefits that Service members, retirees and their families deserve,” she said.
For years, critics of the broad role of the military health services have argued that many medical corps services — such as maternity care and pediatrics on bases — could be provided more effectively by civilian doctors and hospitals.
But Lane said there is too much focus on the high-profile trauma cases on the battlefield “that at the end of the day are a small portion” of medical care. “When we’re trying to put things back together that got broken during a war,” he said, “that’s what you need the most of — pediatricians, public health doctors, primary care doctors.”
Some studies commissioned by the department have concluded private hospitals could deliver less costly care, in part because doctors at hospitals take care of more patients. But the Congressional Budget Office said savings were not at all certain and that military hospitals might be less expensive if the government arranged for greater use of them.
Brad Carson and Morgan Plummer, who held senior jobs in the Department of Defense during President Barack Obama’s administration, argued in a 2016 essay that the military isn’t the best training for surgeons because it doesn’t provide them with a sufficient number of cases to develop expertise.
The military health system “has too much infrastructure, the wrong mix of providers, and predominantly serves the needs of beneficiaries who could easily have their health care needs satisfied by civilian providers at far less cost and with equal or better quality,” they wrote.
The government this year is spending $50 billion on the military health system, including Tricare insurance for more than 9 million active-duty service members, veterans, families and survivors, according to Congress’ budget office. That is roughly a tenth of the military budget. The CBO projected costs are on track to increase to $63 billion in 2033.
Defenders of the system reject the idea that non-wartime jobs can be eliminated without it hurting that core mission.
“Military health care providers between deployments maintain their clinical skills by treating service members and millions of beneficiaries,” Dr. Arthur Kellermann, dean of the school of medicine at the Uniformed Services University in Bethesda, wrote in a 2017 Health Affairs article. “Military hospitals provide valuable platforms for teaching the next generation of uniformed health care professionals and standby capacity for combat casualties.”
Prescott, the former Army doctor, said that the military may have trouble turning to civilian doctors in some regions given physician shortages, which he said the military cuts would exacerbate.
“Most hospitals are already pretty full, most health care providers are pretty busy,” said Prescott, now chief academic officer at the Association of American Medical Colleges.
Doctor shortages would increase if the military cut the slots it now has to train doctors, because there wouldn’t be new civilian residencies created to compensate. “Those positions basically disappear,” he said.
Kathryn Beasley, a retired Navy captain who is director of government relations for health affairs at the Military Officers Association of America, said she was also concerned with unforeseen consequences of dramatic cuts.
“Everything’s tied together, there’s a lot of interdependencies in these things,” she said. “You pull a string on one and you might feel it in an area you don’t expect.”
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent program of the Kaiser Family Foundation.