Commentary: TRICARE medical program appreciated

By Maj. Ross Whitmore: 27th Special Operations Medical Operations Squadron

I have often said the best two decisions I’ve made in my life were marrying my wife Rachel, and joining the United States Air Force. I never knew how these two choices would one day affect my family.

After 11 years in the Air Force with various assignments including a remote tour to Korea and 17 years of marriage, I was deployed to the Middle East for four months. While I was deployed, Rachel was once again a single mother of our two teenage daughters.

Rachel handled many frustrations while I was away, as is usual for military spouses. But the last week of my deployment she was diagnosed with cancer. Upon receiving this news my commander ensured I was home within 24 hours to support my family.

Once home, I accompanied my wife to multiple medical appointments as specialists worked to identify the type and stage of her cancer. Within a couple of weeks she was diagnosed with stage four cancer of unknown primary origin. She was terminally ill. As you can imagine, I was stunned. My wife was 38 years old with no risk factors and yet they gave her less than a 40 percent chance of surviving the next 12 months.

Because of her unusual case we were sent to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston to an oncologist specializing in cancer of unknown primary origin. They ran additional tests and found additional tumors; my wife had tumors from head to toe. Our M.D. Anderson team coordinated care with the local cancer center here in Clovis. Rachel was able to rest in her own bed each day during her extensive and painful radiation and chemo treatments. Although my wife received the best treatment available, I lost her on July 22, 2008.

I share this very personal story for one reason: to share with you an example of an instance where TRICARE, our military healthcare plan, does work. Despite well over $700,000 in medical care, my total out-of-pocket expense was less than $100. Every time we traveled to M.D. Anderson we were on orders, which meant our mileage, hotel room and meals were reimbursed.

I met many families at M.D. Anderson who weren’t so lucky. They were responsible for 20 percent or more of their medical expenses in addition to the out-of-pocket expenses for hotels, meals and travel expenses to Houston. TRICARE took care of everything for me.

Yes, I dealt with bureaucratic red tape and occasionally became frustrated while dealing with multiple medical organizations. But the bottom line is my wife received the best medical care money could buy. The pain of my loss was not complicated with the fear of financial ruin, substandard medical care or how to care for my daughters. I still have my house and plan on sending my daughters to college thanks in part to TRICARE.

In her Aug. 29 column in the Cannon Connections, Anita Doberman shared her frustrating and unfortunate TRICARE experiences. I’m sure there are others who have experienced similar frustrations. But for every Anita Doberman there’s a Rachel Whitmore.