Cantwell: Coast Guard in SW WA Needs Better Medical Care, and Fast

Senator renews call for Tricare Prime Remote eligibility for Southwest WA and Northern OR Coast Guard families

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) is calling on the Coast Guard to improve healthcare access for Coast Guard families. In a letter to the Coast Guard Commandant, Admiral Paul F. Zukunft, Cantwell called for the redesignation of the Sector Columbia River Health Services Clinic as a “troop medical clinic” so families of members stationed at Station Cape Disappointment, National Motor Lifeboat School, and Sector Columbia River are eligible to enroll in Tricare Prime Remote.

The designation would significantly expand the availability of healthcare for Coast Guard families in their local communities by allowing families to seek treatment outside of the pre-designated Tricare network. In extreme cases, families travel hundreds of miles – sometimes six hours or more – seeking medical care.

In response to pressure from Senator Cantwell in 2016, the Coast Guard worked with16 primary care providers in the Sector Columbia River pre-designated network. However, independent data revealed that many of the providers in the area are not accepting new patients, do not meet Tricare standards for access, and are specialists rather than primary care providers. Wait times for these new providers often range from one to three months.

In short, the healthcare options available to Coast Guard families in Southwest Washington and Northern Oregon still fall well short of meeting their needs.

“Heavy weather stations, such as Cape Disappointment, attract some of the most selfless servants in the Coast Guard operating in some of the harshest marine environments in the United States,” wrote Senator Cantwell. “Being stationed in this area comes with rewards and challenges—and I believe that we can do more to support these families by improving access to healthcare… as well as expanding access to childcare and other family support services.”

Enrollment eligibility of Coast Guard families was changed from Tricare Prime Remote to Tricare Prime because the Department of Defense implemented a policy which prohibited enrollment in Tricare Prime Remote for families residing in the pre-designated network and within 40 miles of a military treatment facility.

Sector Columbia River Health Services Clinic is currently listed by the Department of Defense as a military treatment facility. While military treatment facilities are intended to deliver healthcare to all uniformed service active duty members, families, and retirees, Sector Columbia River Health Services Clinic is only able to offer full services to Coast Guard active duty members due to a lack of space, staff, and resources – leaving many families without access to local medical and dental care. 

Cantwell met with Coast Guard families at U.S. Coast Guard Station Cape Disappointment last year in Ilwaco, Washington where she heard directly from them how enrollment in Tricare Prime – unlike Tricare Prime Remote – does not provide the unique benefits needed for families serving in rural areas.

Cantwell is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard. In 2016, after pressure from the Senator, the Coast Guard announced that the Coast Guard would expand maternity leave from six weeks to twelve weeks. Cantwell also secured an amendment to the Coast Guard Reauthorization Act of 2015 to expand the Combat Related Special Compensation program to cover more Coast Guard men and women. Combat-related special compensation provides post service financial benefits for service members with disabilities from injuries sustained from certain activities during active duty service.