Privatization speeds soldiers along

The Army Reserve’s reliance on a private contractor to conduct medical screening of drilling reservists has driven up costs and reduced readiness of medics and reserve units, says a freshman congressman who also is an Army Reserve colonel and physician.

But an advocate for the contractor counters that the percentage of Army reservists medically ready to deploy within 72 hours actually has jumped over the last several years, from 24 percent to 62 percent.

Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., says he has watched with rising frustration as an arrangement with Logistics Health Incorporated (LHI) of La Crosse, Wis., has handcuffed his Reserve medical staff on weekend drills from providing basic preventive health services to fellow reservists.

Heck charges that this has cut training opportunities for reserve medics.

And LHI contract rules create barriers to using reserve medical personnel effectively, to give flu shots, for example, or to do preventive dental care.

Heck also contends that thousands of reservists every year are wrongly classified as medically non-deployable because LHI relies too heavily on soldiers’ responses to health questionnaires to assess fitness for duty.

Besides being a freshman member of Congress, Heck commands the Western Area Medical Support Group in San Pablo, Calif., one of four such groups in the Army Reserve. He oversees 2,200 medically trained reservists assigned to 13 units across six states.

LHI does important work to ensure reservists stay medically fit, Heck says. “The problem is it doesn’t really accomplish that in a timely, cost-effective manner.”

“I would send a soldier who was well to a PHA” — Periodic Health Assessment conducted by LHI — “and he would come back broken, this is, medically non-deployable for an issue that was really not an issue,” Heck says. “But it would take six months to a year for us to clear it up.”

Heck estimates that 10,000 Army Reservists currently have a “P-3 profile” from LHI “that renders them medically non-deployable. And most of those, I am sure, will be adjudicated as not valid.”

Army Reserve Mobilization Support Units still are responsible for medical processing of reservists when mobilized and on return. But if the same personnel “want to do soldier readiness processing at my unit, they can’t do it on a drill weekend for my soldiers even though that’s their job should they be mobilized,” Heck says.

LHI, in a statement, said that neither the company nor the Reserve Health Readiness Program it services prohibits reserve components “from performing their medical readiness services organically.”

LHI says it only follows guidance from the Army Reserve Surgeon’s office and the office for Force Health Protection and Readiness under the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. And “LHI only initiates” the annual health profile for drilling reservists. “LHI is not the final authority on eligibility. For Army Reserve, the regional support command surgeon’s office has the authority to override any issue identified.”

LHI says in the last three years the Army Reserve “has witnessed historical medical and dental readiness improvement.”

Heck says he has been raising questions about the LHI contract for at couple of years based on “my first-hand experience. Now it’s just that I’m in a position to maybe get some answers.”

Maj. Gen. Richard A. Stone, deputy surgeon general of the Army for mobilization, readiness and reserve affairs, said in a statement that readiness of the Army Reserve and Army National Guard “has steadily improved with the growth of the Reserve Health Readiness Program.”