By Jennifer Hlad
Since the Pentagon began responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, Defense Secretary Mark Esper has had three priorities: “protecting servicemembers, DOD personnel and their families,” “maintaining national security mission capabilities” and “supporting the whole-of-government response” to the virus, Esper told families Oct. 9 during the 2020 Virtual Military Family Summit, hosted by the Congressional Military Family Caucus.
Child care and health care are both consistent concerns for military families, and have become even more critical during the pandemic. As such, the Pentagon has expanded and incentivized telehealth services — including waiving copays for in-network telehealth services, increasing telework opportunities for troops, and working to reopen childcare facilities while also looking at “innovative ways” to increase capacity, said Matthew Donovan, undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.
Donovan, who addressed the summit live after video of Esper’s speech was cut short due to technical issues, said Esper and “the entire Department of Defense have an unwavering commitment to taking care of our servicemembers and their families.”
In personnel and readiness, Donovan said, “We work tirelessly to lead the way in this effort, and meet with the secretary weekly to update him on our progress. We understand how much our servicemembers and their families rely on the resources we provide, so this is a no-fail mission for us.”
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In a panel on military family child care challenges during COVID-19, MOAA board member Col. Rojan Robotham, USAF, said the “time is now” for DoD to modernize child care by exploring “new options” and “new possibilities,” including allowing military families to use pre-tax money to pay for child care and offering fee assistance for families to hire nannies.
When Robotham married her husband, they agreed that they would both pursue their careers, and “child care has been a major hurdle to make that happen,” she said. “Women want to be able to serve their nation, and also be married and raise families.”
Robotham’s story was “good to hear, but it’s bad to hear,” said Rep. Chrissy Houlahan (D-Pa.). “I separated from the military 30 years ago, and it hasn’t gotten any better.”
Congress is working to make flexible spending accounts available to families for child care expenses, Houlahan said, and the current version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) has a provision requiring the DoD to rework how child care assistance rates are calculated for areas with a high cost of living.
This issue’s “time has come. It’s past come,” Houlahan said.
MOAA has been working on several initiatives to make child care available and affordable for military families, including an incentive for family child care providers and pushing to reassess affordability and availability concerns, said Eryn Wagnon, MOAA’s director of military family policy and spouse programs.
But the strength of the civilian child care system is critical to military families as well, Wagnon said, since only a quarter of military children under the age of 5 get their care at base Child Development Centers (CDCs).
COVID-19 has also had a significant impact on TRICARE and the military health system, and revealed the need for improvements to ensure continued access to quality care, said Karen Ruedisueli, director of health affairs at MOAA.
In addition to a “high quality, well-functioning problem reporting and resolution system” for beneficiaries to report issues, Ruedisueli said she believes it’s important for TRICARE to bring back the ability to switch from TRICARE Prime to Standard at any time of year, not only during the open enrollment period.
And, Ruedisueli said, it’s critical that DoD continue to increase access to mental health care, particularly as COVID-19 is adding to the mental stress load of military families.
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“I do want to acknowledge some realities here with this challenge, which is that there’s a national shortage of behavioral health care providers, particularly in the area of pediatrics, so we have to acknowledge that, but we also have to make sure that we’re pushing forward to try to improve what we can,” she said.
Jennifer Hlad is a freelance writer and editor and the spouse of a Marine Corps officer. She is former journalist for Stars and Stripes and has lived in Bahrain and Japan.