TRICARE ready to close 189 customer service centers April 1

Tuesday - 1/21/2014, 4:51pm EST

Mary Kaye Justis, director, TRICARE Health Plan

Download mp3

For years, military members or their families could walk into a TRICARE health facility to get administrative tasks done, like changing doctors. But no more. TRICARE is set to eliminate 189 customer service centers on April 1, ending walk-in service. Instead, beneficiaries will have to complete administrative tasks over the phone or online.

Mary Kaye Justis, director of TRICARE Health Plan, told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Emily Kopp Tuesday the key point that people need to understand is that this change does not alter the availability of health care at all.

"There's no, at all, decrease in the number of health care facilities that are available or people's ability to get their needs met with any aspect of their health," she said. "Essentially, what we're doing is trying to become more customer-service friendly. The walk-in centers really required folks who lived off-base to come on into the base to get their needs met in person as opposed to having more advancements in the Web and the telephone call centers."

Mary Kaye Justis

When the military originally switched from the Civilian Health and Medical Program of the Uniformed Service (CHAMPUS) to TRICARE 20 years ago, people had the chance to make choices about which TRICARE services they wanted.

"At that point, folks needed extra help," Justis said. "It was different than they had experienced in the past, the idea of making choices about what kind of health insurance product you wanted was different. So, these walk-in centers served a great, great purpose at that point."

With huge advances in Internet services and call-center technology being made over the last two decades, TRICARE now has the opportunity to offer much of its administrative services online or by phone.

"There will still be support to the military treatment facilities," Justis said. "There will still be folks from managed-care support contractors working actively with them, but for folks who are coming in wanting to change their primary care physician, they can do that much more easily over the phone or on the Web."

TRICARE's intention in closing the walk-in customer service centers was to improve efficiency and customer service.

TRICARE is boosting its efforts to get people to use its online and telephone services. Each of TRICARE's three managed care support contractors operates a call center for its region. Each of those call centers is focused on connecting its members to the physicians and services available within the region. Each of those centers average about 10,000 calls a week or about 120,000 calls a month, spread over about 20 hours of operation a day.

"As we looked at that and went through it, even if all of the inquiries are going into TRICARE service centers now moved over to phone centers that didn't go over to the Web, it is a very small, small change in the business for the call centers," Justis said. "So, yes, we hold the folks to very firm customer service standards. We're working with the managed care support contractors as well as the military leadership to assure that it's all very seamless for individuals, that the capacity is there at the peak times for the call centers and that we've taken other steps to help folks be more comfortable on the Web and to know what the change will be in their lives."

She added that TRICARE members would be able access nearly all of the same services online as they could over the telephone.

TRICARE is also in the process of developing mobile applications that would make it easier for its members to access online services from their mobile devices.

"We don't have the full enrollment mobile app yet, but that is on the way very soon," Justis said.

According to Justis, overseas TRICARE centers will not be impacted by the change.

"Obviously, there are some unique needs in dealing with host nation physicians and providers that are different than you'd find in the United States," she said. "So this really is strictly TRICARE service centers in the United States. There are unique needs overseas and there's no impact whatsoever there."

RELATED STORIES:

Senators concerned over TRICARE fee increases

TRICARE Prime fees to increase Oct. 1