The 374th Medical Group, seen here Dec. 18, 2023, treats cvilican employees of the Defense Department at Yokota Air Base, the home of U.S. Forces Japan in western Tokyo.

The 374th Medical Group, seen here Dec. 18, 2023, treats cvilican employees of the Defense Department at Yokota Air Base, the home of U.S. Forces Japan in western Tokyo. (Kelly Agee/Stars and Stripes)

TOKYO – American civilians working on U.S. bases in Japan are celebrating plans for a probe into health care available to those supporting U.S. forces in that country and in the Northern Mariana Islands.

The Government Accountability Office study is required by the National Defense Authorization Act, an annual bill detailing defense policy, which was passed by the House on Thursday and is awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature.

American civilians working on military bases in Japan had complained when the Defense Health Agency, under a congressional mandate, on Jan. 1 limited chronic care at base hospitals to only beneficiaries under Tricare Prime, the military’s top-tier medical plan, which includes active-duty service members, their families and eligible retirees.

Department of Defense civilian workers, including agency employees, contractors, schoolteachers, analysts and others, were limited to space-available appointments only for sudden onset, or acute ailments.

Two months later the DHA reversed itself and said DOD civilian employees in the Indo-Pacific region could seek treatment again at base hospitals for chronic health conditions like diabetes or high-blood pressure. But they may only schedule appointments on a space-available basis.

An earlier version of the defense legislation had required that the U.S. Indo-Pacific command study medical manning requirements and access to health care in the U.S. Forces Japan and Joint Region Marianas areas of responsibilities.

However, the law that was ultimately passed requires the study be conducted by the Comptroller General of the United States, who is the director of the GAO.

The office must submit an interim briefing to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees within 180 days of the bill’s enactment, with a final report to be submitted on a date agreed by the comptroller general and the committees.

The Japan Medical Advocacy group, which links civilians affected by changes to health care access on U.S. bases and has 1,500 followers, celebrated plans for the study in a Facebook post Saturday.

“After countless hours of tireless advocacy from our dedicated volunteers, Congress has officially taken a stand,” the post read. “They’ve called in the big guns – the Government Accountability Office – for an in-depth, independent study on healthcare access issues for both military and civilians stationed in Japan.”

The study isn’t just a routine check-up, the post states.

“Why does this matter? Because it’s about ensuring our total force receives the care they deserve,” the post states.

One advocacy group follower, Jorgi Stever, left her job as a Department of Navy comptroller at Yokosuka Naval Base, Japan, on Friday for a position in the U.S., she said Monday.

“The medical situation was 70% of the reason I left,” she said by phone.

Stever, a government employee for 37 years, had recently extended her stay in Japan for another two years. But recent health issues, including arthritis and a thyroid condition, became an issue, she said.

The pressure of dealing with off-base medical facilities became too much of a distraction from her job, she said.

Civilians on military bases in Japan had hoped that the GAO would get involved, according to Alexandra Cumming, whose husband works as a DOD civilian attorney at Yokosuka.

“They are going to do a deep research drive,” Cummings, who volunteers with the advocacy group, said Monday by phone. “They can look at what health care is like out here and what it’s going to take to fix the problem.”

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Seth Robson is a Tokyo-based reporter who has been with Stars and Stripes since 2003. He has been stationed in Japan, South Korea and Germany, with frequent assignments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti, Australia and the Philippines.

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