Defense Health Care:

Access to Civilian Providers under TRICARE Standard and Extra

GAO-11-500: Published: Jun 2, 2011. Publicly Released: Jun 2, 2011.

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The Department of Defense (DOD) provides health care through its TRICARE program, which is managed by the TRICARE Management Activity (TMA). TRICARE offers three basic options. Beneficiaries who choose TRICARE Prime, an option that uses civilian provider networks, must enroll. TRICARE beneficiaries who do not enroll in this option may obtain care from nonnetwork providers under TRICARE Standard or from network providers under TRICARE Extra. The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2008 directed GAO to evaluate various aspects of beneficiaries' access to care under the TRICARE Standard and Extra options. This report examines (1) impediments to TRICARE Standard and Extra beneficiaries' access to civilian health care and mental health care providers and TMA's actions to address the impediments; (2) TMA's efforts to monitor access to civilian providers for TRICARE Standard and Extra beneficiaries; (3) how TMA informs network and nonnetwork civilian providers about TRICARE Standard and Extra; and (4) how TMA informs TRICARE Standard and Extra beneficiaries about their options. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed and analyzed TMA and TRICARE contractor data and documents. GAO also interviewed TMA officials, including those in its regional offices, as well as its contractors.

Reimbursement rates and provider shortages have been cited as the main impediments that hinder TRICARE Standard and Extra beneficiaries' access to civilian health care and mental health care providers. Providers' concern about TRICARE's reimbursement rates--which are generally set at Medicare rates--has been a long-standing issue and has more recently been cited as the primary reason civilian providers will not accept TRICARE Standard and Extra beneficiaries as patients, according to TMA's surveys of civilian providers. TMA can increase reimbursement rates in certain instances, such as when it determines that access to care is being affected by the level of reimbursement. Shortages of certain provider specialties, such as mental health care providers, at the national and local levels may also impede access, but these shortages are not specific to the TRICARE program and also affect the general population. As a result, there are limitations as to what TMA can do to address them. TMA has primarily used feedback mechanisms, including surveys of beneficiaries and civilian providers, to gauge TRICARE Standard and Extra beneficiaries' access to civilian providers. More recently, in February 2010, in recognition that TRICARE has had no established measures for monitoring the availability of civilian network and nonnetwork providers for these beneficiaries, TMA directed the TRICARE Regional Offices to develop a model to help identify geographic areas where they may experience access problems. GAO's review of the initial models found their methodology to be reasonable. However, because the regional models were recently developed, it is too early to determine their effectiveness. TMA's contractors educate civilian providers about TRICARE program requirements, policies, and procedures. Contractors also conduct outreach to increase providers' awareness of the program, and while TMA's provider survey results indicate that civilian providers are generally aware of the program, this does not necessarily signify that providers have an accurate understanding of the TRICARE program and its options. Similarly, TMA's contractors educate beneficiaries on all of the TRICARE options and maintain directories of network providers to facilitate beneficiaries' access to care. When the new TRICARE contracts are implemented, TMA will also require its contractors to include information on nonnetwork providers in their provider directories. In commenting on a draft of this report, DOD concurred with GAO's overall findings.

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