The Defense Department would have to undertake a detailed study of service members’ and spouses’ access to maternity care within the military health care system under bills being introduced Thursday by a bipartisan group of lawmakers from both chambers of Congress.
Lawmakers hope the bills will ultimately improve access to prenatal, birthing and postpartum care for those covered by Tricare amid reports in recent years of women struggling to be seen by an obstetrician.
“Ensuring the well-being of our military families means addressing the unique challenges mothers face while they, or their spouses, serve in the military,” Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., one of the bill’s sponsors, said in a statement to Military.com ahead of the measure’s public release. “The Improving Access to Maternal Health for Military and Dependent Moms Act is a crucial step toward understanding and overcoming the obstacles to maternal health care within the Military Health System.”
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The Senate bill is also sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., while Reps. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., and Terri Sewell, D-Ala., introduced an identical version in the House.
The bill comes after reports in recent years that staffing shortages at military treatment facilities have left expectant mothers struggling to find a doctor. The shortages have been linked to efforts to reorganize military health care under the Defense Health Agency. The Defense Department has recently decided to backpedal on pushing family members and other beneficiaries to private care and instead work to bring them back into military hospitals.
Availability of maternity care has been particularly troublesome for service members and spouses in areas where local doctors don’t have the capacity to handle an influx of military patients, as well as for those stationed overseas where treatment may differ from what U.S. patients expect.
Recent studies have also shown that patient satisfaction ratings for obstetric care in military health facilities are low compared to medical and surgical care.
To better understand those issues, the bill would require a two-year study by the Defense Department on the availability of maternity care within the military health system and staffing shortages in positions related to maternal care and childbirth.
Among several other factors, the study would also have to look at wait times and travel times for appointments; any military-specific health challenges service members and spouses have in their maternity care; how much maternity care has cost the Pentagon over the last decade; and whether any military treatment facilities are in a “maternity care desert,” or an area of the U.S. without obstetric care.
The study would also have to look at availability of obstetric care at Tricare-affiliated providers outside military treatment facilities.
The bills ask that the final report on the study include legislative recommendations to address staffing shortages, improve the availability of maternal health services and patient experience, and improve continuity of prenatal and postpartum care during a permanent change of station move.
“Our service members and their families endure many hardships. Ensuring accessible maternal health care should not be one of them,” Stefanik said in a statement. “As a mom, it is despicable to read reports of expecting mothers being turned away from hospitals on military installations due to a shortage in full-service medical staff.”
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