WASHINGTON — Due to a change in the status of a Sector Columbia River medical and dental clinic, local Coast Guard families are sometimes being forced to travel hundreds of miles to get health care.

During a recent meeting at Station Cape Disappointment, USCG personnel told U.S. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash, that some people who are eligible for Coast Guard benefits are driving as much as “six hours or more round trip to access health care at Military Treatment Facilities with the capacity to serve their healthcare needs,” according to an April 21 press release.

In a recent letter, Cantwell urged Assistant Secretary of Defense Dr. Jonathan Woodson to make it easier for Coasties in Southwest Washington and Northern Oregon to get local medical care.

The Coast Guard units at Station Cape Disappointment, the National Motor Lifeboat School, and Sector Columbia River used to be designated as “Tricare Prime Remote” units. That designation allowed local Coastie families to get care through private sector providers.

However, the federal government recently recognized the Sector Columbia River Medical and Dental Clinic as an official Military Treatment Facility. As a result, the “remote” designation for local USCG bases was removed, and people who qualify for Coast Guard benefits are now required to get their care through the military clinic.

In her letter, Cantwell said she thought the clinic’s new designation “is putting an inappropriate and disproportionate burden on the Coast Guard men and women stationed there.” She urged Woodson to reinstate the “remote” status for local USCG facilities.

“The purpose of a Military Treatment Facility is to deliver medical and dental care to all eligible individuals, including active duty, reservists, retirees, and dependents. This is simply not the case at the Sector Columbia River Medical/Dental Clinic — nor will it ever be,” Cantwell wrote. “The clinic’s 15 member staff offers basic preventative medical and dental services to nearly 800 active duty Coast Guard members in the immediate area. The clinic does not offer any services for families because there simply is not enough space, staff, or the resources to cover those individuals.”

Cantwell is a senior member of the Senate Commerce Committee which has jurisdiction over the Coast Guard. Earlier this year, USCG announced it would expand its maternity leave from six weeks to 12 weeks — another change that Cantwell advocated for. According to her press release, Cantwell in 2015 also successfully secured benefits for more USCG men and women who sustained disabilities as a result of certain types of active-duty activities.

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