COPPERAS COVE — The director of Fort Hood’s closing Tricare Service Center spoke to veterans Saturday about the coming change.
Hosted by Star Group-Veterans Helping Veterans, attendees were able to ask questions and voice concerns to Chuck Lauer, Tricare administrator at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center. Pentagon officials announced last month that 189 U.S.-based Tricare Service Centers will end administrative walk-in services April 1. This includes the Fort Hood center, which averages about 3,000 visitors each month.
“There’s not another health insurance program in America providing face-to-face contact,” Lauer said.
Come April, all interactions with Tricare will be done over the phone or Internet. While Lauer anticipates a problem or two, he doesn’t think there is cause for concern.
“I’ve heard from many people that retirees are not computer savvy, but I have yet to meet one who doesn’t have a computer in their pocket,” Lauer said pulling out his own smartphone. “I’m not concerned. ... I wouldn’t have been able to say that same thing 10 years ago.”
He explained the centers were opened in 1996 when the Defense Department switched from Champus to Tricare in order to educate people about their benefits. Now people understand the system, and it was always intended for the walk-in service centers to fade away.
“Over the last two years, we’ve seen a decline in the number of people coming to the service center,” Lauer said.
While Lauer said he doesn’t track the percentage of veterans versus active-duty personnel visiting the center, Tricare officials said in- and out-processing and enrollments generate most of the traffic.
There also is a cost-saving measure in closing the centers. The Pentagon estimated the department to save $250 million over the next five years, allowing Tricare to invest in more important services.
Lauer mentioned several congressionally mandated programs initiated without additional funding provided that could benefit from the savings, including health care for Reservists and the Tricare For Life program.
Howard Hawk, retired Army, said he is sad to see the center go, but appreciated hearing information directly from a Tricare official.
“Sometimes you get on the phone and go through all those prompts,” he said, adding sometimes it’s just easier to physically show another person your paperwork. “It’s a great benefit knowing that the center will close and what’s available by the website. You may not get as much as going there face to face.”