Navy embedding mental health teams with submarine squadrons
By CARL PRINE | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: May 17, 2018
Commanders are calling it the “year of change” for Navy medicine but Rear Adm. Paul D. Pearigen is excited about what the reforms promise, especially for submariners.
The commander of San Diego-based Navy Medicine West, a health network that’s concentrated in the Pacific Rim but extends globally from Peru to Egypt and Vietnam, Pearigen sees 2018 as a transition from the way the armed forces traditionally treated patients to one based more on hiking readiness in deploying units and ships.
“This is really about the transition of management and administration of the military treatment facilities, all those hospitals across the Navy, Army and Air Force, from the services’ medical departments to the Defense Health Agency ,” Pearigen told members of the San Diego Military Advisory Council during a Wednesday address at Naval Base Point Loma.
Called “DHA” by the troops, it’s a joint agency that’s consolidating the business and clinical wings of the Army, Air Force and Navy medical services.
By Oct. 1, it’s supposed to release new policy guidelines that increasingly shift key portions of retiree and family heathcare to DHA along with control of more than 400 hospitals and clinics now run by the military services.
The plan is to provide better but cheaper care and the agency already manages the Tricare medical program for retirees and families of the troops, not to mention Walter Reed National Military Medicine Center in Maryland and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia.
That helps Navy to deliver more direct care to sailors and Marines, like what Pearigen is providing to the submariners.
Pearigen’s command is pairing mental health treatment teams with submarine squadrons to make the medical professionals — many of them civilians — organic to the boats, becoming almost like the rest of the crew.
The psychologists, social workers and other mental and behavioral health specialists will learn the unique culture of the submarine fleet but unlike similar teams on aircraft carriers and surface warships they’ll likely never deploy for long underwater tours.
“They might go out on some local patrols to get to know the environment and to get to know the sailors, but they’re not deploying with them,” Pearigen told the San Diego Union-Tribune after his address.
Pearigen foresees them riding on the boats for short visits and greeting sailors along the piers to sniff out problems as they arise instead of forcing submariners to leave their boats or the waterfront to attend clinics, which is how the military traditionally has treated them.
Their mantra is “close, quick and known” — stationed inside or near a sub squardon, providing services within a week and with the care delivered by people the sailors already trust.
That concept isn’t new to the Navy — carriers have used a similar model for two decades — but it is for the underwater fleet.
When the flattops adopted it, commanders saw emergency evacuations drop by 85 percent and administrative separations for misbehavior plummet by 93 percent.
A starter program in a Norfolk squadron in 2013 cut unplanned losses from 22 annually to only two by 2016, according to the Hawaii-based Submarine Force Pacific.
Worldwide the Navy counts 85 attack, ballistic or guided-missile subarines on station, at sea or under construction.
“We’re embedding them now in Marine units and special operations settings as well now, too,” said Pearigen.
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