The military's health boss says lessons learned in Colorado Springs are helping her merge the military's health system into a single management scheme that she says will cut costs while improving care.
Vice Adm. Raquel Bono, who heads the Defense Health Agency, visited the five bases in the Pikes Peak region last week to learn more about how the military's medical system here has worked since it was unified starting in 2005. That change put all of the bases' resources under a single leader and allowed the region's service members and dependents to share medical offerings.
Bono is looking to replicate the idea worldwide as the military's branches push their medical services under Defense Health Agency management.
"Here in Colorado Springs, they have shown over and over again how well it works," Bono said.
The good news for Colorado Springs is most of the changes Bono envisions for military health services have already taken place. She wants all troops and their families to have consistent care across the globe with one record-keeping system and one management plan covering all health needs.
"It's finally bringing together the best of all the forces," Bono said.
A career surgeon who joined the Navy in 1979, Bono took the military's top medical post last year. She said the merger of the military's medical services under her agency will eliminate waste and improve patient care.
"What family members will start to see is more consistency," the admiral said, noting that everyday tasks like making an appointment with a military doctor will be handled in the same manner from Bahrain to Boston.
A real driver of changes, though, is the skyrocketing bill the military pays for the health care of troops and their families.
The health care budget for the Pentagon topped $44 billion last year, up nearly $1 billion from 2017. Health care takes up more than 8 percent of military spending, with the price tag expected to hit $50 billion in 2020, Congressional Budget Office estimates show.
The Trump administration moved this year to put the military's health spending on a diet, with a proposal that cuts the number of military medical personnel by more than 20 percent, eliminating 18,000 medical billets over the next five years.
By eliminating medical jobs, the military plans to trade them for more trigger-pullers and fighter pilots.
Bono said nearly a third of those positions are already vacant, making for a real cut of 12,000 medical troops over five years. She said some of the workload will transfer to Defense Department civilian employees, while other medical needs could be filled through the military's Tricare plan, which is the military's equivalent of civilian health insurance.
Along with the cuts, Bono said her agency is also working to streamline care provided to troops in combat overseas. By putting health care under a single agency, the network of care in war zones is more easily managed and offers opportunities to see that wounded troops get better, faster care, she said.
Despite the management shake-up and downsizing, Bono said the military's patients won't suffer. By working closely with civilian counterparts, cutting bureaucracy and reducing costs, she foresees a bright future for military patients.
"We're making sure their care remains foremost," she pledged.