TRICARE Service Center walk-in service ends April 1

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Over the course of my career, I have seen numerous changes made to our health benefits. The most sweeping of such was made in the mid-1990s when TRICARE was introduced to replace the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Services better known as CHAMPUS. Essentially, TRICARE is the Department of Defense health plan in which managed care contractors have been selected to manage the health needs of DOD beneficiaries residing in identified regions (i.e., the continental United States is divided into three regions with three contractors). Colorado is located in the TRICARE West region and our TRICARE contractor is UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans.

Those of you who were DOD patients during the transition to TRICARE probably remember what a big change it was. Let's face it, like all changes it was challenging, confusing and even frustrating for some...but looking back, it was well worth it. Since then, TRICARE has become one of the most robust, if not the most robust health plan in the United States and most of the initial challenges with the transition have been addressed.

Since the inception of TRICARE, military treatment facilities have had walk-in service windows known as TRICARE Service Centers. These offices were originally opened to help our patients through the transition to TRICARE. TSCs are the place many of you visit when you have questions about referrals/authorizations, enrollments, plan coverages, bills or to make payments relative to your health coverage. Unfortunately, TSCs have become much more costly as compared to other available means (i.e., telephone and Internet) of communicating with our TRICARE contractors.

As such, TSC walk-in customer service at 189 military treatment facilities in the continental United States will no longer be provided effective April 1.

This change will not affect health care delivery or TRICARE benefits.

With the closure of the TSCs, patients will contact TRICARE through toll-free calls and the Internet. Although this is a significant change from what we've all grown accustomed to with TRICARE, it mirrors how commercial health plans take care of their patients -- few, if any, offer walk-in service centers. This change will further save the Defense Health Program an estimated $250 million over five years.

As with any change of this magnitude, I anticipated there will be challenges. Our 21st Medical Group staff is working closely with UHC M&V to make this 'giant leap' to electronic communications as easy as possible for our patients. Gone are the days of having to stand in line at the TSC to complete routine tasks or get information. Our patients will now have convenient assistance through a toll-free call or through the Web.

Telephone Assistance: for enrollment, referral/authorization, billing issues and other general questions, patients should contact UHC M&V at 1-877-988-WEST (9378) or go to www.uhcmilitarywest.com.

Internet Services: The new "I Want To..." feature at www.tricare.mil will take you quickly to the right site to check claims, change your PCM, find a doctor, compare plans (Prime, Standard, Extra), view referrals/authorizations and much more. Please give it a try today.

Together, we'll get through this change in the way we access information about our health plan and enjoy time saved through a simple call to our contractor, UHC M&V, or a visit to the TRICARE Web site.

I thank our patients for entrusting the 21st Medical Group with your health care needs -- it's a true privilege to serve you.