September Message from the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs to the Military Health System Team

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MHS Team:

Last week I had the opportunity to see our MHS team in action and observe a training rotation at Joint Readiness Training Center at Ft. Polk, Louisiana. I was humbled by the warm hospitality and support for our visit, even in the midst of their recovery from Hurricane Laura. Through it all the Ft. Polk medical team has continued operations while also helping their community. The incredible team at Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital showed me examples of their successes and challenges in providing safe, high-quality care to patients. I also got to observe the awe-inspiring training of 1st Brigade, 101st Airborne Division during their rotation at the world-class JRTC. Thank you to COL Jody Dugai, BJACH commander and BG Patrick Frank, Commanding General of Ft. Polk and JRTC – and their teams – for an extremely productive visit.

September is Suicide Prevention month. Suicide remains far too common in our ranks. It is unfortunate that so much stigma is still attached to mental health issues. I want to emphasize how important it is for us to establish and maintain an environment where people feel comfortable asking for the help they need. I encourage each of us to use the resources available if we are struggling, and I want all of us also to be one of those resources for those seeking help. We each may have the chance to intervene at any time with our friends, family, or coworkers if we reacquaint ourselves with the signs of trouble. Let’s renew our vigilance and work to reduce and ultimately eliminate suicides amongst our peers.

September is also Pain Management month. The MHS has implemented a comprehensive pain management and opioid safety strategy using the evidence-based Stepped Care Model for Pain developed in the Department of Veterans Affairs. We’re educating beneficiaries to better participate in their own pain management with an approach that considers opioid safety. We’re leading a culture change in pain management, towards a biopsychosocial approach that emphasizes use of non-pharmacologic treatments and, when necessary, safe opioid prescribing. Our data indicate MHS providers are actively modifying their prescribing behaviors in line with emerging evidence-based guidelines, clinical standards, and DHA policies. One positive data point is a decrease in cases of active-duty service member Opioid Use Disorder – from about 3,000 (in 2013) to about 550 (in 2019) – significantly lower than the U.S. adult population as a whole.

Operation Warp Speed. One of the ways the Department is participating in the whole-of-government COVID-19 vaccine effort is through the participation of five DoD MTFs in the AstraZeneca candidate vaccine’s Phase 3 trials at MTFs in San Diego, San Antonio, and the National Capital Region. We’re actively preparing those sites to meet the rigorous standards needed for these important trials. It is a tribute to the high-quality health care in the MHS that DoD locations are being included in the clinical trials.

Some updates on current MHS issues –

COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma: As directed by Secretary Esper, DoD made a strong months-long push to collect COVID-19 Convalescent Plasma. Thanks to COVID-recovered MHS beneficiaries who have answered the call, we’ll reach the Secretary’s goal of 10,000 units collected to increase the medical readiness of our uniformed forces. We will continue to collect convalescent plasma to ensure we maintain adequate amounts where we need it, to ensure readiness, and to provide high-quality care for families.

DoD COVID Testing: DoD has now administered more than 1 million COVID-19 tests and has been consistently conducting more tests per capita than the United States as a whole. This milestone is not a celebration but rather, an indication of the tireless work of the Diagnostics and Testing Task Force, working in lockstep with the DHA, the military Services, combatant commands, and other agencies. Our testing is showing a steady decline in overall DoD and active-duty service member positivity rates since mid-July, which is consistent with national trends. Now, we’re entering the next phase of this fight, with advanced therapeutics as well as vaccine development and dissemination. We’re dedicated to continuing to integrate new and proven technologies into the testing strategy with a variety of testing modalities, including point-of-care tests and oral-saliva tests – all focused on military medical readiness. Kudos to Maj Gen (Dr.) Lee Payne for leading this outstanding and sustained team effort!

One last thought about health care. As flu season approaches, I encourage everyone to get this year’s flu vaccine. There is a ready supply of vaccine this year and the DHA has planned for enough doses to support our beneficiaries. Either at an MTF or in the TRICARE network, flu shots will be available. Please help protect our medical resources by getting your flu shot. I remain humbled by all of your continued efforts to ensure our Nation has a medically ready force and ready medical force.

To close out, we note a couple of important new additions to the Health Affairs team. I would like to welcome Dr. Robert Mabry, our new Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. His multi-disciplinary clinical expertise and experience as an operator will be a superb asset to Health Affairs and the entire MHS. I’d also like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Dave Smith for stepping up these past many months to serve as acting PDASD. His time as acting PDASD has included not only some of the most significant changes to the MHS in decades, but also the Department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thank you, Dave, for an outstanding job. 

And, finally, I would like to introduce Dr. David Strong, a White House Fellow coming to us from Detroit. He is an emergency medicine physician and holds a Ph.D. in Immunology. Dr. Strong will be spending the next year working with the Health Affairs front office and also with DHA. Welcome to the team, Dr. Strong.


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