WASHINGTON – The Defense Department is working to improve its Exceptional Family Member Program with several initiatives underway, agency officials reported at a House Armed Services Committee hearing Feb. 5.
Carolyn Stevens, director of the Office of Military Family Readiness Policy; Navy Capt. Edward Simmer, chief clinical officer of Tricare Health Plans at the Defense Health Agency; and Col. Steve Lewis, chief of the Army’s Family Program Branch, G9, testified at the hearing that centered on the question, “Are the military services really taking care of family members?”
The EFMP requires mandatory enrollment for troops who have a family member with special needs. The program works with military and civilian agencies to provide comprehensive and coordinated community support in the areas of housing, education, medical care, personnel services and more, at or near duty stations around the world. If necessary support is not available, program representatives work with assignment managers to identify alternate duty stations that can meet the requirements.
“As a former military spouse, I care about issues impacting our families and am personally committed to addressing quality-of-life issues,” Stevens said.
She acknowledged DOD is aware that service members and spouses are concerned about the management and execution of the program, as noted in previous witness testimony and a survey conducted in May.
“I want to reaffirm DOD’s commitment in addressing challenges that the witnesses have brought forth today,” Stevens assured. “These personal experiences we hear about and data we collect combine to offer a broader understanding of the hardships our military families are facing, and it helps us better define courses of action.”
DOD can address some of the challenges head-on, while others – such as education and off-installation services – require coordination with partners in other federal agencies, states and municipalities.
“We’re committed to balancing individual experiences with a … working strategy and have placed a special focus on the results of a recent department-wide survey and the conclusions of a recent (General Accounting Office) report,” the director said.
Toward that end, Stevens reported the DOD has accomplished the following:
• Re-energized its coordinating committee for military families with special needs to ensure senior executive service oversight.
• Begun to refine the program’s data repository and a data collection system.
• Developed and implemented a standard family needs assessment form that has a component for individualized services plans.
• Developed standardized travel screening forms for family members and is working with the Defense Health Agency to develop and publish policy.
• Engaged with the Department of Labor and university partners to assist in developing staffing. In addition, a pilot program was launched to assist the services in determining adequate staffing levels at each installation.
“Improving EFMP is a priority for the department,” Stevens said. “We know we have more work to do. We thank the witnesses for their appearances today and for continuing to advocate for both themselves and for others in this important topic.”
Simmer, a licensed psychiatrist, said the Defense Health Agency is committed to ensuring military children, especially those with special needs, receive the health care services they need to reach their maximum potential. Family readiness is a key part of service member readiness, he confirmed.
DHA works closely with the program at installation, service and DOD levels, Simmer further pointed out. His agency’s support for the program includes identifying and evaluating families who qualify for it, providing first-rate medical care and services to those eligible, and assisting with assignment decisions by providing information about available medical services at potential duty locations worldwide.
“Tricare provides a very robust benefit with some of the lowest out-of-pocket costs of any health plan in the country,” Simmer said. “Our beneficiaries who earned this benefit through their service to the nation deserve nothing less.
“Despite our best efforts, however, we know we still have room for improvement,” he acknowledged. “Access to care, especially sub-specialty care, is challenging in some areas, particularly in remote locations where some of our bases are located.”
Also speaking at the hearing, Lewis shared information about a new web-based customer service portal that is projected to be launched this year. It will give enrolled EFMP families access to cloud-based forms for faster completion and processing. Eventually, the system will have the capability to synch-up with the Army assignment system, further improving efficiency.
Additionally, during town hall meetings with EFMP families in the past year, Lewis learned that some face hardships when transferring healthcare and educational services from one installation to another during permanent-change-of-station moves.
“As children move from one school district to another and across various states, we are finding the individualized education plans that were established at prior sites aren’t always being adopted and acted upon the same way in the new installation,” Lewis said.
The Army recently launched initiatives to improve the program, including establishing the Army's Quality of Life Task Force, where Lewis serves as deputy director.
The Army currently has 119 full-time EFMP staff members to service 54,000 families, including 55 system navigators who work within Army Community Services offices. Lewis noted the Army has an additional 80-90 staff members in the medical treatment facilities, including case coordinators. Within Child and Youth Services, school liaison officers help families with special needs children address educational concerns.
“We know challenges remain and we have room to improve,” Lewis said. “We must get this right.”