This article was updated to clarify that immediate mental health care is available to sailors who are experiencing a crisis.

Sailors are facing “significant challenges” in getting the mental health care they need through the telehealth program, the top enlisted sailor told lawmakers Tuesday. The problem is Tricare bureaucracy, which requires troops to make an appointment with a doctor in order to get a referral for the telehealth program.

“That takes away the intent of the program, for us to have more accessible mental health care” said Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy James Honea on Tuesday, testifying along with other senior enlisted advisers before the House Appropriations subcommittee on military construction, veterans affairs, and related agencies. Honea advocates following the same system available to Navy dependents, who have immediate access to telehealth counseling, without going first to their primary care doctor.

Honea’s testimony shows how hard the nationwide shortage of mental health providers has hit the military. Tricare has been expanding its telehealth services to offer more mental health care, but the two-step process to access counseling is still limiting the access Honea says his people need.

But sailors who are in a mental health crisis and need immediate mental health access “absolutely will get the care they need immediately,” said Senior Chief Stacee McCarroll, spokeswoman for the MCPON. Honea wants to see that referral process for the telehealth program removed so that sailors can get mental health counseling when they need it and reduce the possibility of them sliding into a crisis.

In testimony May 25, 2022, Seileen Mullen, acting assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said defense officials were trying to lower the referral and approval barriers for tele-behavioral health.

Honea and other senior enlisted described other challenges with military health care. “We must improve our current health care systems,” said Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Troy Black.

Access to adequate medical services and timely care is one of the top concerns Honea has heard in his visits to the fleet, during his six months in the job. In the Pacific Northwest, he said, “two naval hospitals have been downgraded, requiring sailors and families to drive an hour or more to seek military medicine and specialized care.”

Some Department of Defense civilians overseas are also facing challenges, unable to access military medical treatment facilities at all, Honea said. “Our DoD civilians are part of our total military family, and work directly alongside our military teams,” so require access to the same services.

As it stands, the Navy will begin losing civilian employees who are mission critical, he said, if they can’t get the help they need when they need it.

The lawmakers brought in the senior enlisted leaders to testify about quality of life of their troops, including issues like improving troop barracks and expanding access to childcare, as well as reviewing the current system of pay and compensation.

The leaders said the ongoing Quadrennial Review of Military Compensation — a complete review of military pay and compensation — would help drill into such issues, as well as how the Basic Allowance for Housing is calculated, and the problem of food insecurity many military families face. The Marine Corps’ Black said the current pay system provides no buffer to help troops deal with issues like inflation.

But Honea conceded that the Quadrennial isn’t going to be quick enough to solve many of the current problems.

He highlighted the San Diego area, where housing costs have increased by more than 26% in 2022, compared to 2021. Many junior enlisted families don’t make enough money to make ends meet and to have the amount of emergency savings to handle that kind of increase, while waiting for the Basic Allowance for Housing to catch up to offset those expenses, he said.

“Many found themselves well into their savings, and it’s understandable why many found themselves food insecure,” Honea said.

Karen has covered military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times for more than 30 years, and is co-author of a chapter on media coverage of military families in the book "A Battle Plan for Supporting Military Families." She previously worked for newspapers in Guam, Norfolk, Jacksonville, Fla., and Athens, Ga.

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