The Department of Defense is working to improve the Exceptional Family Member Program with several initiatives, a DOD official said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Feb. 7.
Carolyn Stevens, director of the DOD's Office of Military Family Readiness Policy and Navy Capt. Edward Simmer, chief clinical officer of TRICARE Health Plans at the Defense Health Agency, testified last week week on "Exceptional Family Member Program: Are the Military Services Really Taking Care of Family Members?"
The Exceptional Family Member Program has mandatory DOD enrollment and works with military and civilian agencies to provide comprehensive and coordinated community support, housing, educational, medical and personnel services around the world to military families with special needs.
"As a former military spouse, I care about issues impacting our military families and am personally committed to addressing quality-of-life issues," Stevens said.
DOD is aware that service members and spouses are concerned about the management and execution of the program, she said, acknowledging previous witness testimony.
"I want to reaffirm DOD's commitment in addressing challenges that the witnesses have brought forth today," Stevens noted. "These personal experiences we hear about and data we collect combine to offer a broader understanding of the challenges facing our military families to help us better define our courses of action."
DOD can address some of the challenges head-on, while others -- such as education and off-installation services require coordination -- with partners in other federal agencies, states and local education agencies, she said.
"We're committed to balancing individual experiences with a … strategy and have placed a special focus on the results of a recent department-wide survey and the conclusions of a recent [General Accounting Office] report," the director said.
Toward that end, Stevens said DOD has:
• Re-energized its coordinating committee for military families with special needs to ensure senior executive service oversight.
• Begun to refine the program's data repository and a data collection system.
• Developed and implemented a standard family needs assessment form for the program that has a component for individualized services plans.
• Developed standardized travel screening forms for family members and is working with the Defense Health Agency to develop and publish policy.
• Engaged with the Department of Labor and university partners to assist in developing staffing. In addition, a pilot program was launched to assist the services in determining adequate staffing levels at each installation.
"In proving EFMP is a priority for the department, we know we have more work to do. We thank the witnesses for their appearances today and for continuing to advocate for both themselves and for others in this important topic," Stevens said.
Simmer said the Defense Health Agency is committed to helping military children. "We're committed to ensuring every military child -- and especially those with special needs -- receives the health care services they need to reach their maximum potential," he said.
Family readiness is a key part of service member readiness, the captain, a psychiatrist, said.
DHA works closely with the program at the installation, service and DOD levels, he said.
DHA's support for the program and families includes identifying and evaluating families who qualify for it, providing outstanding medical care and services to eligible family members, and the agency assists with assignment decisions by providing information about available medical services at potential duty locations worldwide, Simmer said.
"Tricare provides a very robust benefit, with some of the lowest out-of-pocket costs than any health plan in the country. Our beneficiaries who earned this benefit through their service to this nation deserve nothing less," the captain said.
"Despite our best efforts, however, we know that we still have room for improvement," he said. "Access to care, especially sub-specialty care, is challenging in some areas, particularly in remote areas where some of our bases are located."