Sweeping budget cuts going into effect Friday create a paradox for military medicine: spending money to save money, Army, Navy and Air Force medical officials say.
As thousands of civilian medical workers are furloughed because of the "sequester," patients will be sent to private doctors at public expense to receive timely medical care, according to the military medical officials.
"This will result in increased medical care costs to the DOD (Department of Defense) and American taxpayers," says an Army Public Affairs statement released this week.
The point of the sequester cuts established by Congress and signed by President Obama was to slash federal spending by $85 billion across the federal government.
Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan, Navy surgeon general, wrote in a recent message to sailors that "Navy Medicine will not and cannot hang a 'closed' sign at the front door of our facilities. We will work ... to refer care as necessary, also recognizing that referring out care does not save money in the long run."
The Pentagon health care system, known as TRICARE, already has contracts with a network of private medical offices that can provide additional patient care.
Defense officials say that by late April, they will begin furloughing most of some 800,000 military civilian employees, sending them home a projected one day per week for 22 weeks, a 20% pay cut.
The Army Surgeon General's Office issued a statement Wednesday saying that includes laying off 34,200 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel. The service has requested exceptions for up to 10% of its civilian medical force who work in crucial areas such as critical patient care, behavioral health, care of wounded servicemembers, medical retirement evaluations and food and water safety.
The office says it may also reduce medical clinic operation hours or days.
About one in five medical workers at the Air Force's 75 treatment facilities are civilians who are facing layoffs, says Jonathan Stock, a spokesman for the Air Force Surgeon General's Office.
Nathan said that 12,000 civilian medical providers could face layoffs.