Japanese and American ambulances park out the 374th Medical Group's urgent care entrance at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, March 17, 2023.

Japanese and American ambulances park out the 374th Medical Group's urgent care entrance at Yokota Air Base in western Tokyo, March 17, 2023. (Kelly Agee/Stars and Stripes)

YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan – Three military hospitals in Japan are relaxing their rules on access to medical care for Defense Department civilian employees and other clients not covered by Tricare Prime, the military’s highest level health care plan.

Health care providers at Yokota, the airlift hub in western Tokyo; Camp Zama, the headquarters of U.S. Army Japan southwest of Tokyo; and Naval Hospital Okinawa at the Marine Corps’ Camp Foster all freed additional time for DOD civilians to make space-available appointments for chronic medical conditions.

Starting March 27, patients limited to space-available appointments at Yokota’s 374th Medical Group may schedule visits up to three days in advance for routine care like annual check-ups, urgent-care follow-ups and care for chronic issues like diabetes and high blood pressure. The medical group announced the change Wednesday on its Facebook page.

Space-available patients at Yokota have been checking a morning Facebook post for available slots, then dialing quickly before they’re filled. The change announced Wednesday yields additional time.

Starting Jan. 1, DOD civilian employees in the Indo-Pacific region on health-care tiers below Tricare Prime were restricted to space-available appointments for acute, or immediate, health care, only.

The Defense Health Agency on March 3 retreated from that policy after hundreds of DOD employees unleashed torrents of criticism at visiting Pentagon executives during January town halls at bases across Japan. DHA amended the rule, based on a congressional mandate, and permitted DOD civilians to schedule chronic care to the extent base hospitals can accommodate them.

“It is progress but still not good enough,” Kristin Pine-Duarte, a fourth-grade teacher at Yokota West Elementary School, told Stars and Stripes on Wednesday over Facebook. “As teachers, we have meetings and plan weeks ahead so the inability to plan our medical as well, especially for chronic conditions, continues to negatively impact us as well as our students.”

Stepping out of a classroom for an hour or two on short notice to book a “space-available” appointment at the base hospital is unrealistic, Pine-Duarte said during a Yokota town hall on Jan. 5.

“Because of the limited number of appointments, the three-day window necessitates that we call back daily until we can finally get an appointment,” she said Wednesday. “This is still limiting our access to care.”

Naval Hospital Okinawa also loosened its rules to permit space-available clients to schedule appointments at any time at the hospital and branch clinics, according to a post on the hospital’s Facebook page Monday. Active-duty service members, their families and other priority patients still have priority on the appointment calendar, according to the post.

“The precedence of care is still the same; active-duty service members and their families have priority. All other patients will be seen on a space-available basis, while efforts will be made to maximize space-available access,” said a March 8 post on the hospital’s Facebook page.

The Brig. Gen. Crawford F. Sams Army Health Clinic at Camp Zama rolled out a pilot program Monday that permits DOD civilians and others not covered by Tricare to schedule same day and some future space-available appointments at its primary care and optometry clinics.

Patients must call starting at 10 a.m. to schedule same day appointments or sign up for open slots or cancellations over the next three days, according to a Monday post on the hospital’s Facebook page.

Local exceptions apply. For example, obstetrics is unavailable to space-available patients on Okinawa, but the Yokota medical group still provides care to expectant mothers. The mental health and physical therapy on Okinawa have been at capacity since December 2022 and are closed to space-available patients, the hospital said.

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Kelly Agee is a reporter and photographer at Yokota Air Base, Japan, who has served in the U.S. Navy for 10 years. She is a Syracuse Military Photojournalism Program alumna and is working toward her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland Global Campus. Her previous Navy assignments have taken her to Greece, Okinawa, and aboard the USS Nimitz.

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