SecDef denies plans to cut military health by $2.2B, Trump says otherwise

Elizabeth Howe
August 18, 2020 - 12:28 pm
SecDef Mark Esper

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The waters have been further muddied around the issue of military health cost cuts thanks to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and President Donald Trump. 

POLITICO first reported over the weekend that Esper planned to cut $2.2 billion of the military health care system's budget -- a move that would "effectively gut the Pentagon’s health care system during a nationwide pandemic." 

The Pentagon was quick to respond to POLITICO's report. Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman took to Twitter to call the POLITICO article "inaccurate and incomplete." 

"Secretary Esper has neither directed nor reviewed, let alone approved, any cuts to military healthcare in the upcoming budget and the FYDP," Hoffman tweeted. 

Hoffman goes on to explain that this year’s Defense-Wide Review which has been tasked with identifying $5 billion in savings, run by the Chief Management Officer, is still ongoing and Esper has not been briefed on any of CMO's recommendations yet. 

On Monday, Trump tweeted otherwise, saying he nixed any plans for major cuts. 

"A proposal by Pentagon officials to slash Military Healthcare by $2.2 billion dollars has been firmly and totally rejected by me," Trump tweeted Monday. "We will do nothing to hurt our great Military professionals & heroes as long as I am your President. Thank you!"

In order for Trump to have rejected such a proposal, it would have to have first been approved by Esper, who claims he has made no such recommendation. Esper posted his own tweet hours after Trump's saying as much. 

It is now unclear what cuts might be coming to the military healthcare system, if any, and who has recommended what. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, of course, also put in his two cents on the issue. 

This marks just the most recent of several occasions in recent months when Esper directly contradicted Trump's messaging on certain issues.

At the beginning of August, Esper contradicted Trump's take on the explosion in Lebanon saying that "most believe" the explosions that devastated Beirut were accidental. Trump had already said that top military leadership believed, and told him, the explosions were an attack. 

SecDef Esper contradicts Trump, says Beirut explosion likely accident

In June, Esper worked to distance himself from the president's photo in front of the church in Lafayette Square after a protest crowd was forcibly cleared. He also contradicted Trump's assessment that active-duty troops were needed to quell protests in response to the killing of George Floyd across the nation. The Wall Street Journal previously reported that Trump had to be convinced not to remove Esper from the position of Secretary of Defense after this series of events. 

Cost-saving measures for the military health system have been on the table for years. Last week, top leadership from every branch of the Armed Forces urged Esper to put an end to ongoing efforts to merge military health with the Defense Health Agency. Before the pandemic, the DHA was set to continue with what has become the largest overhaul of the military health system in decades, including moving patients to private care providers, closing hospitals and clinics and cutting military medical jobs.

Service leaders urge SecDef to halt DHA takeover of military hospitals

In a memo originally obtained by a reporter for Synopsis, a Capitol Hill newsletter, the secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, along with the branch chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Space Force, wrote Secretary of Defense Mark Esper that the merge between DHA and military health is "not viable."

The pandemic "introduces barriers, creates unnecessary complexity and increases inefficiency and cost," the memo reads. "The proposed DHA end-state represents unsustainable growth with a disparate intermediate structure that hinders coordination of service medical response to contingencies such as a pandemic."

Around 9.5 million active-duty personnel, military retirees and dependents use the military health system which operates hundreds of facilities around the globe. 

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Reach @ECBHowe on Twitter.

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