June 19, 2018
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State officials expect Baldacci’s experience with health care to serve him — and the military — well

By Meg Haskell, BDN Staff

Former Maine Gov. John Baldacci’s recent appointment to an influential health care position in the Department of Defense is generating plenty of interest in his home state.

Though the Pentagon has not made Baldacci available for a personal interview about his new responsibilities, a statement from the DoD’s Office of Personnel and Readiness confirms that, at an annual salary of $165,300, the Bangor native will oversee a comprehensive evaluation of military health and wellness.

“The initiative will result in recommendations to the Secretary of Defense on reforming the department’s health care system by identifying required reform actions and developing initiatives to ensure quality long-term care for our service members, their families and retirees,” according to the statement e-mailed late Wednesday afternoon.

Baldacci’s appointment is for just one year, with a possibility of an extension if needed.  He will be evaluating a number of programs within the Personnel and Readiness office, including prevention and wellness, the health services delivery system, and the Tricare managed care program for military members and their families.

Maj. Gen. Bill Libby, commissioner of the Department of Defense, Veterans and Emergency Management and the adjutant general of the Maine National Guard, said Thursday that Baldacci is well-suited to his new position.

As a governor and as a member of Congress, Libby said, Baldacci has grappled with the responsibility of both sending troops to war and caring for them when they return.

“I don’t think anyone who has ever been in uniform would argue that military medical care doesn’t need significant reform,” Libby said.

As an example, he said, the system moves slow to evaluate troops who have been injured to determine whether they are able to continue their assigned duties. Especially in cases of traumatic brain injury, he said, “the process is so slow, so cumbersome.”

Libby said doctors and other experts in Maine have important health-related experience to share with the Defense Department, such as the Maine National Guard’s protocol of screening all troops before they deploy to establish a baseline brain function, allowing concussive brain injuries during deployment to be identified and treated more quickly. While the Army has adopted a similar screening technology, Maine’s system is more reliable, Libby said.

“I’m looking forward to having a dialog with the governor,” he said. “We have a great rapport, and I think we can help him with this mission.”

In Bangor, retired Sr. Master Sgt. Michael Gleason of the U.S. Air Force said the quality of care in the military is high but that there’s plenty of room for improvement in how easy it is to access. For example, he said, for active duty military members living in the Bangor area, there is no local provider network.

Gleason, who worked as an active-duty recruiter in Bangor for more than 20 years, said that in the past he has sought basic medical and dental care at the former Air Force base in Charleston,  the former Navy station in Winter Harbor, and the former Naval Air station in Brunswick.

“For active duty people it is a sort of gauntlet,” he said.

With those military bases no longer in existence, Gleason said active duty military members living in Maine’s rural areas have even less access to care. The situation would be helped if the Defense Department would reimburse local, non-military providers in areas where military facilities are unavailable, he said.

“It’s not our fault we’re stuck here in the wilderness with no bases nearby,” he said.

Many current and retired military members, though not all, are enrolled in Tricare, a program that contracts with non-military providers to provide care to members. In Maine, Tricare contracts are administered by Martin’s Point Health Care, a Portland based non-profit health care system.  

Dan Wasneechak, director of DoD programs for Martin’s Point, said Baldacci is very familiar not only with Tricare but with the many primary care innovations supported by Martin’s Point practices.

These include the extensive use of electronic health records, the integration of mental health and other specialty services into primary care sites, and providing same-day and after-hours appointments to get patients seen more quickly and conveniently. Such initiatives have proved  to improve the quality of care and patient satisfaction, he said.

Baldacci’s experience with reforming health care in Maine through the contentious Dirigo Health Reform Act of 2003 will serve him well in Washington, Wasneechak said.

“He’s been able to address these challenges at the state level; that will be a good foundation for him to look at the bigger picture at the Defense Department,” he said.

“We are thrilled that he is going to be in Washington,” Wasneechak said.

Bangor City Council member Maj. Gen. Nelson Durgin, also retired from the U.S. Air Force, said it is essential to assess the adequacy of the military’s management of mental health and behavioral changes brought about by concussive brain injuries and post traumatic stress syndrome in military members returning from war zones. Not only must military members receive optimal care, he said, but affected family members also must have access to support and education in adapting to changes in their loved ones.

Durgin praised what he termed a recent cultural change in the military that de-emphasizes the abuse of alcohol and tobacco and called for greater attention to diet and nutrition  to help service members maintain healthful weight and physical fitness.

“Health care is only part of the Defense Department budget,” Durgin said. “But the global concern is that we have to put healthy military out there.”

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