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Rep. Jim Costa pushing to keep vets' center open

MERCED -- Rep. Jim Costa is urging the Department of Defense to reconsider its plan to close the center in Atwater that provides services to military retirees, active duty personnel and dependents.

In a letter, Costa said the closure of the Tricare Service Center would force veterans in his district to drive up to 90 miles to Lemoore or 150 miles to Beale Air Force Base for in-person service.

The center is set to close Feb. 15. It works with clients on enrollment, claims, authorizations and referrals. Customers can receive those services by phone or online after the closure.

Tricare Management Activity, established by the Department of Defense to manage the Tricare health care programs, has three regions in the country. California is part of the West Region, which serves 21 states.

TriWest Healthcare Alliance is the contractor for the West Region, but beginning April 1, the new contractor will be UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans.

As part of the shift in contractors, 10 centers in the West Region with a low number of customers will close.

Elizabeth Hillestad of TriWest Healthcare Alliance said 330 clients have visited the Tricare Service Center in Atwater in the past six months.

Linda Dash, office manager for Tricare in Atwater, didn't return calls seeking comment.

In his letter, Costa said those served by the center have made sacrifices to keep this country safe, and that it's the country's duty to keep its promise to care for veterans.

"The closure of this important facility is unacceptable, and I urge you to keep the doors open for veterans in California's 16th Congressional District," he said in the letter. "For years, the Atwater (Tricare Service Center) has provided a necessary service for military retirees in the region."

The center is also used by the California Air National Guard's 144th Medical Group of the 144th Fighter Wing in Fresno, Costa said.

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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