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American Forces Press Service

Military Health System Headed To Joint Future

By Sgt. Sara Wood, USA
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 30, 2006 "Jointness" is an inescapable reality for future military operations, and the military health care system will be no different, two Defense Department officials said here today.

As the military health system transforms, the services will unite to provide more complete and efficient care to all servicemembers, their families and retirees, David S. C. Chu, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, said at the State of the Military Health System 2006 Annual Conference.

The base realignment and closure process mandated the most noticeable changes in the military health care community, Chu said. Under BRAC, Walter Reed Army Medical Center will be replaced by a national military medical center that will bring together the assets of all branches of the military, he said. Also, all medical training operations will be consolidated at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where a joint facility with state-of-the-art technology will be established.

These large infrastructure changes will allow the military to eliminate redundancy and respond better to changing patient demographics, said Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and director of Tricare Management Activity.

"These are historic moves, but they present great opportunities," Winkenwerder said.

Joint operations will involve partnering not only within the DoD, Chu said, but also with other agencies in the U.S. government and in governments of foreign countries. The most obvious partnership is with the Department of Veterans Affairs, he said. Already, DoD and VA have established a joint executive council that meets quarterly, he said, and the two departments are working on resolving issues such as access to medical records.

In another partnership, the DoD will overhaul the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Disease to make it a modern research facility that will produce medical countermeasures to the world's deadliest diseases, Winkenwerder said. This institute will be moved to the emerging national biodefense campus on Fort Dietrich, Md., where it will be joined by the Department of Homeland Security, Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health, and other agencies, he said.

Another development that will bring together the military health community is the Armed Forces Health Longitudinal Technology Application, the new electronic health records system being deployed by DoD, Winkenwerder said. AHLTA provides a clinical data repository with information on all beneficiaries that will be accessible worldwide for military health care providers, he said.

AHLTA allows servicemembers' records to be available, no matter where they are in the world, Chu said. That is very important in today's operating environment. "It provides a retrievable record, and that's essential, given the high rate of deployment that this global war against terrorism creates," he said.

AHLTA already covers much of DoD and will be completely integrated by the end of the year, Chu said.

As the military health system transforms, DoD is committed to providing quality care to servicemembers, their families and retirees, while combating rising costs for the Tricare program, Winkenwerder said. The key to success is recognizing the need for joint operations, as servicemembers in Iraq and Afghanistan already have, he said.

"Servicemembers from all branches are working together seamlessly; it's the total force, and it's working," he said. "The challenge for us is to learn what's working best and to understand what needs more attention in terms of joint operations, and to get there. Our people in the field get it; we must support them."



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