At the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the Army had to reach out to retired military doctors and medics, and ask them to return to service as part of a voluntary recall to help fight the coronavirus. Fortunately, many were listening because within days, approximately 25,000 volunteers stepped forward. They backfilled positions in military treatment facilities as troops deployed to the field hospitals now popping up in American cities to deal with patients stricken by the virus.
Undoubtedly, military leaders resorted to such measures due to the scale of the coronavirus response. But a CDI review of government reports and medical journal articles, as well as conversations with military doctors, shows that the military health system was strained long before the current crisis thanks to years of reduced spending on the Defense Department’s health services, reductions to the medical corps staff, and efforts to outsource military health care to civilian hospitals.
As is often the case, they placed top priority on acquisitions projects at the expense of essential missions like maintenance and medical capabilities. In 2016, the Pentagon spent $177.5 billion on major weapon systems. That spending increased to $243.4 billion in the 2021 budget request, a 37% increase to pay for things like five littoral combat ships, a class of ships that has never worked properly and that the Navy wants to scrap. There’s also the $2.85 billion for the Air Force’s KC-46 aerial refueler program, an aircraft so full of problems that airmen aren’t allowed to use them in training. While lawmakers lavished money on the procurement portion of the budget, spending levels on the military health system remained stagnant. Only after a worldwide health crisis made clear how desperate the shortages were in the military medical community did anyone seek to do something about it. The coronavirus stimulus package included $3.8 billion to for the military to purchase personal protective equipment, increase the capacity of its hospitals, and fund research into a vaccine.
Robert Adams, a retired Army doctor, issued some of those warnings before the coronavirus pandemic. He wrote a column for USA Today in July 2019 explaining how proposals to cut 18,000 military medical professionals would not only damage the military’s health system, but would spill over into the civilian healthcare system as well. Here he discusses his journey from being a Navy SEAL to an Army doctor to serving on the front lines in Iraq. He also talks about the contributions that military health professionals make across the entire medical community and the potential consequences of plans to cut thousands of military doctors and nurses.