Marines' movement to Guam would overwhelm island's dentists, DOD IG finds
July 28, 2011
CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa — Guam residents might have a tough time finding a dentist if the military moves ahead with plans to transfer 8,600 Marines from Okinawa to the territory in the coming years, according to an audit report released Wednesday by the Defense Department’s Inspector General.
The DOD’s top auditor found the influx of tens of thousands of military personnel, contractors and families needed to turn the isolated island into a strategic hub could overload the 50 or so civilian dentists on Guam, who are now the sole providers for Guamanians and nearly all active-duty dependents already living there.
The planned buildup is expected to bring 39,000 additional people to the island between now and 2020 and could reduce the availability of dentists to just one for every 5,000 of the territory’s residents, which is considered a provider shortage under federal health care guidelines, the audit said.
The military’s healthcare provider Tricare and the Guam governor’s office said they do not believe there will be a shortage because the island should attract more dentists as the population swells.
This week’s report follows other criticism in recent months of the planned multi-billion dollar realignment of U.S. forces in the Pacific. The Senate has called the project unneeded and too expensive and the Government Accountability Office issued a report in June saying the DOD has not adequately planned the shifting of forces in Guam and Japan.
“The Navy prepared a series of planning documents to determine how DOD would satisfy the increased medical and dental requirements resulting from the Guam realignment,” the audit said. “However, none of the documents provided evidence that the Navy fully examined whether there would be enough dentists in Guam to handle the expected increase in population.”
Guam already has far fewer dentists than the U.S. average and unlike Japan and South Korea, military dependents there who are enrolled in military health insurance are required to get most dental care off-base just like families stationed at bases in the United States, according to the inspector general.
The inspector general’s office said the Navy and Tricare have been working this year to improve planning for dental care on the island, but Tricare has denied that the buildup will cause a shortage, saying the number of dentists will continue to grow. Earlier estimates put the number of island dentists at 43 and that number is actually now 52, which is a significant increase and will help to serve additional military dependents on Guam in the future, Tricare told auditors.
The military health care agency concluded that the dental network “would be stressed but able to handle the influx of family members,” according to the audit report.
The military’s Joint Guam Program Office, which coordinates the buildup effort on Guam for the Navy, referred all questions to the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, which could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday.
The population of dentists on Guam is now growing and will continue to increase as demand for dental care grows with the military buildup, according to Brian San Nicolas, special assistant to Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo for buildup and healthcare issues.
“Based on discussions with our local dental community, I believe Guam can handle the increased demand for care as a result of the military buildup,” San Nicolas said Thursday in an email. “All indications show that even before Guam approaches the threshold of being designated a health professional shortage area, organic market forces will cause the dental community to grow and meet increased demand.”