Defense Health Agency officials say they have found a way to fill personnel gaps at Naval Hospital Okinawa and have reversed course on a decision that would have forced pregnant women at Kadena Air Base to deliver their babies elsewhere.
The naval hospital, a 16 minute drive from the air base, is the only U.S. military medical option on the island. The women had been notified that, due to a staffing shortage, they would either have to deliver their babies at a Japanese hospital, where they wouldn’t be guaranteed admittance, or return to the continental U.S. when they were 7½ months pregnant.
“Additional military, civilian and contracted staffing is being actively worked to fill the gaps caused by personnel moves and to ensure the same level of care is readily available in support of our service members and families,” DHA officials announced June 8, just hours after a Military Times report on the women’s plight.
The hospital is “not on divert, and there is no change in current capability,” they stated.
The staffing constraints at the hospital were caused by the “summer permanent change of station cycle and unanticipated early departure of civilian staff,” officials stated.
Advocates welcomed the change.
“It’s what we were hoping for, that the pregnant mothers would be able to deliver on Okinawa,” said Elayne Saejung, an Air Force wife who has been an advocate for families on Okinawa.
“There are still questions that remain about the original staffing shortage, and whether they have resolved the staffing issue,” she said. “But this is definitely great news for the families on Okinawa.”
The chief of medical staff at Kadena’s 18th Medical Group had issued a detailed, two-page memo June 7 stating that pregnant women with an estimated due date from August through November would have to choose whether to deliver their babies at a local Japanese facility or be flown back to a military treatment facility in the the continental United States — no later than 34 weeks into their pregnancy. Medical personnel had already begun contacting patients about the requirement.
Advocates described this as a “logistical nightmare” for women.
The memo also included caveats regarding Japanese medical facilities, including that, unlike medical facilities in the U.S., Japanese law doesn’t require hospitals to accept patients in labor or to provide health care in an emergency.
In response to Military Times’ questions earlier Thursday, DHA officials said they were “fully aware of the situation at Naval Hospital Okinawa” and were “working with hospital leadership as well as the leadership of the DHA Region Indo-Pacific to determine the best next steps for those in need.”
That included “actively looking for expediting civilian hiring, contract solutions and temporary assignment of military personnel from across the Department of Defense to mitigate the acute shortage of obstetric support for the women in the Indo-Pacific area,” a spokesman 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.