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Defense Health Agency takes action against COVID-19

Image of medical worker  putting on gloves and a mask The Department of Defense is working swiftly to aid in COVID-19 countermeasures. Navy Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Kimberly Wyss, from Ventura, California, dons surgical gloves aboard the hospital ship USNS Mercy, March 29. Mercy deployed in support of the nation's COVID-19 response efforts and will serve as a referral hospital for non-COVID-19 patients currently admitted to shore-based hospitals. This allows shore base hospitals to focus their efforts on COVID-19 cases. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ryan M. Breeden)

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A swift response is needed to deal with an emerging virus like the one that causes COVID-19. From the race for a vaccine to the release of preventive safety guidance, the Department of Defense is working quickly to keep citizens safe from the virus. Government agencies like the Defense Health Agency help bring that safety to military hospitals across the globe.

DHA has improved its programs and resources to respond to COVID-19. DHA acts as the central conduit for all medical requests for information from military hospitals. Providers and beneficiaries can obtain information in a couple of ways:

DHA’s Nurse Advice Line offers registered nurses that are trained to triage beneficiaries, based on guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The nurses offer self-care advice, refer the beneficiary for testing if appropriate, or coordinate clinically appropriate care. The care may be a virtual appointment with a provider, a referral to an urgent care center, or a visit to the emergency room.

If the beneficiary is referred to a military hospital or market ER, the nurse on call will notify the ER of the upcoming beneficiary visit. If the beneficiary is referred to a network ER, the nurse will remind the beneficiary to notify the ER in advance or tell the 911 dispatcher that he or she is suspected to have COVID-19.

DHA’s TRICARE Health Plan formed a work group to focus on COVID-19 efforts and coordinate with DHA’s managed care support contractor partners, HealthNet Federal Services or HNFS and Humana Government Business or HGB. HNFS and HGB continue to work between the Direct CareDirect care refers to military hospitals and clinics, also known as “military treatment facilities” and “MTFs.”direct care (military treatment facilities or MTFs) and Purchased CareThe TRICARE Health Program is often referred to as purchased care. It is the services we “purchase” through the managed care support contracts.purchased care sectors. As the situation evolves, this coordination finds gaps early and allows contingency planning for network providers to accept MTF patients if needed. This collaboration also ensures visibility of COVID-19 cases to leadership in both direct and purchased care.

Additionally, both contractors help connect network providers to support coordination for the deployments of the USNS Mercy and Comfort. HNFS and HGB are reaching out to beneficiaries directly to process and collect enrollment forms and guarantee continued access to care. They also receive and process all private sector claims for COVID-19 testing, assess no copays or cost-shares, and coordinate reporting of COVID-19 lab testing with network laboratories.

To maintain the safety of patients who are currently hospitalized, HNFS and HGB are coordinating ambulance transports to relocate non-COVID-19 patients to alternate hospitals. Both contractors are also working to identify and better support the most vulnerable members of the population. To date, HNFS has contacted 614 case management beneficiaries and 438 disease management beneficiaries to verify disaster preparedness. HGB has fielded almost 2,000 calls related to COVID-19.

The Joint Operations Center is also supporting COVID-19 efforts by acting as the information hub of DHA. The JOC collects requests and information from across the military, including the Joint Staff, combatant commands, and a variety of other military organizations. The JOC then provides that information to the proper authorities in DHA to take action.

“By ensuring that the JOC is getting current and accurate information, we can make sure that the DHA leadership provides our primary stakeholders with the best resources we can offer,” said Neil Doherty, task lead for the JOC.

Information collected from Doherty’s team helps inform DHA leadership on how to proceed with preventive measures. This information helped DHA stand up a crisis action team, or CAT, in direct response to the spread of COVID-19 diagnoses in the United States.

A CAT is usually established for an unplanned event that has wide impact, from natural disasters such as hurricanes to widespread illness such as the current outbreak. A CAT is made up of a team of subject matter experts who work together to share information on these wide-impact issues. This team helps the flow of information up and down the chain of command to make sure the entire DHA enterprise is moving appropriately and efficiently.

The CAT was set up for COVID-19 in response to the impact on service members and other beneficiaries around the world. According to the CAT, any pandemic can have impacts to the medical readiness of service members. This makes taking precautions, especially when traveling, important for the uniformed services.

The DoD has posted travel guidance that should help slow the domestic spread of the virus. The DHA helped finalize and distribute the Force Health Protection or FHP Guidance released by DoD and available on Health.mil. The first FHP Guidance was released in early January.

The most recent FHP guidance related to travel was effective March 13. The new guidance adds extra safety precautions when traveling abroad, identifying high-risk areas throughout the globe by category. The guidance also offers suggested tips for pre- and post-travel.

Service members and beneficiaries are encouraged to keep up to date on guidance provided by DoD and CDC in response to COVID-19. To learn more about DHA actions to combat the illness, visit the Military Health System or TRICARE websites.

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