Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawmakers hold forum at Fairchild

Airmen, family members discuss issues at annual meeting with lawmakers

Michelle Aikman has seen her husband leave the country 13 times since he enlisted in the Air Force prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.

“This is not unusual, and that’s worrisome to me,” Aikman said Thursday at Fairchild Air Force Base.

She directed her comments at members of Congress and military officials: “When I decided to marry my husband, that was not the usual thing.”

Aikman’s comments drew applause from most of the more than 100 airmen and family members who filled a meeting hall at the Spokane military installation for an annual military families summit hosted by U.S. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., and Sanford Bishop Jr., D-Ga. The representatives, who are co-chairs of a congressional caucus founded to address the needs of service members and their families, were confronted with multiple questions about dwindling health and education benefits.

Joining the representatives was Chief Master Sgt. of the Air Force James Cody. Cody acknowledged the concerns over benefits come at a time when the Air Force and Department of Defense are asking the most from a dwindling number of service members.

“This is the reality: At the end of 2015, the United States Air Force will be the smallest United States Air Force since we became an air force,” Cody said. Among the cuts recommended in spending plans by the White House and both chambers of Congress, the Air Force will be contracted by tens of thousands of airmen. At the same time, the Air Force is being asked for the greatest global reach in its history, Cody added.

Bishop, who is the ranking member of a House of Representatives subcommittee on spending for military construction and veterans affairs, acknowledged that members of the military and their families were being asked to deal with circumstances beyond their control.

“These are issues that were not created by our service members, or their families, but they are a result of your commitment to service,” Bishop said.

Most of the issues raised dealt with perceived gaps in health care coverage. Multiple family members and service members asked specific questions about lacking health benefits for care following injuries sustained in combat, and delays in treatment and therapy for family members with disabilities.

UnitedHealthcare Military & Veterans, part of Minnesota-based UnitedHealth Group, took over administration of health plans at Fairchild under the TriCare program for U.S. military members and their families in April 2013. Several attendees blamed the Minnesota company for the issues they were facing.

McMorris Rodgers said she gets TriCare coverage through her husband, Brian Rodgers, who is a retired Navy commander. She said the concerns about health care gaps voiced by airmen were troubling.

“I am disappointed to hear this morning that there are still a number of issues with UnitedHealth,” McMorris Rodgers said.

Several staff members at the base said health care administration had been smoother in recent months after initial confusion following the transition to the new company.

Aikman, wife of the airman who is flying a KC-135 Stratotanker in the Middle East, said she was heartened by the candid discussion that took place Thursday. But it’s up to the lawmakers to make a change now, she said.

“I was very satisfied with the openness of it. But whether anything substantial comes of it, that remains to be seen,” she said