Military families will have easier access to urgent care and primary care under Congress' annual defense policy bill, and out-of-pocket costs won't change for most Tricare users who are already enrolled in the system.

Future service members and their families won't be as lucky. Plans call for fees and co-pays to be collected from those entering service and/or enrolling in health plans after Jan. 1, 2018. One exception: Retirees and family members now enrolled in Tricare Standard will have to pay an annual enrollment fee of $150 for singles and $300 for families starting in 2020.

The bill, passed by both the House and Senate, awaits President Obama's signature before becoming law. Among the health-care provisions:

  • Urgent care referrals won't be required, allowing greater access to that care to military families and ending other common care problems — the need to visit an emergency room to treat an ear infection or sore throat, for instance, according to the National Military Family Association. The NMFA called this part of the bill "the most significant win" among the family health care provisions; it would take effect no later than a year after the bill does. 
  • Some military medical treatment facilities would have to keep urgent care services open until 11 p.m. daily. Defense officials would determine the locations where these extra hours would be needed, and they'd have 365 days from the bill's signing to get the plan in place.
  • Primary care clinic hours at military medical treatment facilities also would expand, if needed. Congress would order the Defense Department to determine the appropriate hours for primary care clinics at MTFs based on the ability to meet access standards and patients’ patterns of using primary care. This would be implemented within six months after the bill is signed into law.
  • The legislation would end Tricare Standard and Tricare Extra as of December 2017 and launch a new program, Tricare Select in January 2018. Standard and Extra users would enroll in either the new Select program or Tricare Prime.

Tricare Select will come with higher out-of-pocket costs for beneficiaries of anyone entering service after Jan. 1, 2018. NMFA advocates said it is "good news" that Tricare Prime will remain free for all active-duty families — no enrollment fees, deductibles or out-of-pocket co-pays.

The bill also changes the way most military hospitals and clinics are managed, putting them under the control of the Defense Health Agency. 
Karen Jowers covers military families, quality of life and consumer issues for Military Times. She can be reached at .

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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