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DOD’s Top Doctor Details Sequester’s Effect on Health System

By Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr.
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 13, 2013 – The Pentagon’s top health affairs official today detailed for Congress the immediate and long-term effects of sequestration on the Defense Department’s military health care system and its medical mission.

Dr. Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, told the House Armed Services Committee that the spending cuts that took effect March 1 will affect patients, staff and facilities.

But he emphasized that the Defense Department “cannot and will not” compromise care in the face of the cuts.

“First, our commitment to quality of care is sacrosanct,” he said. “We will not allow quality to suffer or place any patient at risk, period.”

The department also will ensure that wounded warriors continue to receive the care they need.

“Our continued focus on their medical treatment and rehabilitation will continue,” Woodson said. “It is our goal to make sure that wounded warriors -- from their perspective -- see no difference in care they received before, during or after sequestration.” In addition, Woodson said, DOD will sustain its close collaboration with federal and private partners, and in particular with the Veterans Affairs Department.

Woodson explained the potential effects on military medical treatment facilities and their staffs.

“To the greatest extent possible, we will sustain our access to our military hospitals and clinics for our service members, their families, retirees and their families,” he said. “But sustaining patient care functions during sequestration comes at a cost.

“The department will reduce funding from a wide range of other essential investments,” he continued. “This could produce significant negative long-term effects on the military health system.”

By directing all possible resources to providing patient care under sequestration, he said, the department will have less funding to address military medical facility maintenance and the needed restoration and modernization projects.

“This will negatively affect the health care environment and potentially drive substantial bills for facility maintenance in the future,” Woodson told the House panel. “While we will continue to fund projects that directly affect patient safety or that affect emergent care, we could see a degradation in the aesthetic quality and functionality of our medical facilities,” he said.

The health affairs official noted the potential impact to the morale of both medical staff and patients, and possible degradation of the patient’s experience of health care within the military health system.

“Many of our facilities are older and require substantial upkeep,” Woodson said. “To delay these medical facility projects only exacerbates the problem, and ultimately, the medical staff -- and more concerning, the patients -- suffer the consequences.”

This is not a sustainable strategy, he said, and to continue health care operations, DOD will reduce its investment in equipment. Therefore, he added, equipment now on hand will be used longer and will require more maintenance.

Funding shifts also will affect other areas, Woodson noted. For example, he said, money meant for research and development will now be used to minimize sequestration’s impact on patient care. Civilian employee furloughs are another factor.

“Forty percent of our military medical centers are staffed by civilians, and as a result of the furlough program, access may be impacted,” Woodson said.

Woodson said he and other Pentagon leaders understand the need to contribute to the improvement of the country’s fiscal situation, but stressed the need to do so responsibly.

“While we understand the Department of Defense must do its part in addressing the nation’s budget concerns, … we have a responsibility to do this smartly and judiciously,” he said.

“The path forward with sequestration is neither,” he added. “We hope that Congress will take the required action to avert sequestration and its full impact.”


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Dr. Jonathan Woodson

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