US military hospitals in Japan further facilitate DOD civilians’ access to health care

Japanese and U.S. ambulances park outside the entrance of the 374th Emergency Medical Group at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, March 17, 2023. (Kelly Agee/Stars and Stripes)

YOKOTA AIR FORCE BASE, Japan – Three military hospitals in Japan are easing their rules on access to medical care for Defense Department civilians and other customers not covered by Tricare Prime, the military’s top-tier health care plan.

Health care providers in Yokota, the air transport hub in western Tokyo; Camp Zama, the US Army headquarters in Japan southwest of Tokyo; and Naval Hospital Okinawa at Marine Corps Camp Foster have freed up additional time for DoD civilians to schedule available space for chronic medical conditions.

Starting March 27, space-limited patients at Yokota’s 374th Medical Group can schedule visits up to three days in advance for routine care such as annual exams, urgent care follow-up and care for chronic problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. The medical group announced the change Wednesday on its Facebook page.

Patients with available space at Yokota check a morning Facebook post for available spots, then dial quickly before they are taken. The change, announced Wednesday, provides additional time.

Effective Jan. 1, DoD civilian employees in the Indo-Pacific region at health care levels below Tricare Prime were limited to available appointment space for acute or immediate health care only.

The Defense Health Agency on March 3 backed away from that policy after hundreds of Defense Department officials unleashed a barrage of criticism of visiting Pentagon chiefs during town halls in January at bases in Japan. DHA amended the rule based on a congressional mandate and allowed DOD civilians to schedule chronic care to the extent that base hospitals could handle it.

“It’s progress, but it’s still not good enough,” Christine Pine-Duarte, a fourth-grade teacher at Yokota West Elementary School, told Stars and Stripes on Facebook Wednesday. “As teachers, we have meetings and plan weeks ahead, so not being able to plan our medical care as well, especially for chronic illnesses, continues to have a negative impact on us as well as our students.”

Leaving the classroom for an hour or two on short notice to make an appointment for an “available spot” at the main hospital is unrealistic, Pine-Duarte said during a Yokota town hall Jan. 5.

“Due to the limited number of appointments, the three-day window requires us to call every day until we can finally make an appointment,” she said Wednesday. “It still limits our access to care.”

Naval Hospital Okinawa also relaxed its rules to allow customers with space available to schedule appointments at any time at the hospital and affiliated clinics, according to a post on the hospital’s Facebook page on Monday. Active duty service members, their families and other priority patients still have priority on the appointment calendar, according to the post.

“The priority of care is still the same; active duty service members and their families have priority. All remaining patients will be reviewed on a space-available basis, while efforts will be made to maximize access to available space,” according to a March 8 post on the hospital’s Facebook page.

The brigade. The Army Health Clinic of Gen. Crawford F. Sams at Camp Zama launched a pilot program Monday that allows DoD civilians and others not covered by Tricare to schedule same-day and some future appointments at its primary care clinics and optometry.

Patients should call starting at 10 a.m. to schedule same-day appointments or book appointments or cancellations for the next three days, according to a Monday post on the hospital’s Facebook page.

Local exclusions apply. For example, midwifery is not available for space-available patients on Okinawa, but Yokota Medical Group still provides care for expectant mothers. Okinawa Mental Health and Physical Therapy is at capacity as of December 2022 and is closed to patients with space available, the hospital said.

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