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News | Feb. 22, 2021

Beyond the Medicine: Patient Travel

By Brandy Ostanik-Thornton

Interior Alaska is a great location for viewing the northern lights, observing wildlife and hiking in pristine forests, it is not however, the ideal location to be when looking for specialty medical care. Like civilians living in the Fairbanks area, many TRICARE beneficiaries assigned to Ft. Wainwright find themselves referred to other cities or states in order to receive medical care not readily available in the Fairbanks area.
In order to aid these TRICARE Prime beneficiaries, Medical Department Activity – Alaska provides the services of a patient travel office.
The patient travel office, just one piece of the Patient Administration Division, works with providers, the MEDDAC-AK referral office, resource management and SATO Travel to arrange travel for approximately 1,700 patients each year.
According to Sarah McWhirter, MEDDAC-AK transportation assistant, the patient travel office tries to make the experience of traveling out of town for medical care less stressful for patients.
“Some of our people travel periodically and have the process down but those traveling for the first time, especially those going with a child who is sick, can feel very overwhelmed by having to travel for an appointment,” said McWhirter.
“Our office works to arrange flights to and from the appointment as well as lodging and rental car if necessary. We want to make it as easy for patients as possible so they can concentrate on their family and their medical appointment.”
Staff members work to make the travel experience as comfortable as possible for patients but they are bound to the Joint Travel Regulation on the exact benefits a patient can utilize on any given medical trip.
The most common travel benefit questions center around staying overnight for appointments in Anchorage and non-medical attendants said McWhirter.
There are some situations, such as the patient being a child or those going under sedation, in which the patient automatically receives a non-medical attendant said McWhirter. However, there are other reasons that do not provide for that benefit, such as the patient speaking a foreign language, not having a driver’s license or just not wanting to go alone.
“We work with patients to help meet their needs, but we must also assure we are good stewards of the government dollars we are given. The Joint Travel Regulation guides us to ensure we do just that.”
While the travel office exists to make medical travel easier for patients, there are steps patients can take to make the process run more smoothly.
“All active duty are supposed to have a DTS [Defense Travel System] account,” said McWhirter. “It would help if units ensured their Soldiers had a current account. This is especially true for emergency situations; if they don’t have an account already it definitely puts us behind in the process.”
The process also goes more smoothly when patients have a government travel card account in good standing and the card is turned on.
While most patient travel planning happens during a regular workweek, when an emergency arises, the staff is on stand-by and ready to assist.
“The Soldiers in our office have an on-call phone so if there is a need for emergency travel at night or on the weekend one of them will come in and take care of the patient’s travel needs,” said McWhirter.”
Interactions with patients involve a lot of paperwork and processes, but McWhirter finds the work to be both challenging and rewarding, especially when working with patients who need to travel often for their medical needs.
“Some days can be on the challenging side,” said McWhirter. “Patients often tell us things that are heartbreaking. I know they are processing through emotions and sometimes they do not have anyone else to talk with, or just need to unload their worries. It is hard not to get involved on a personal level.”
“I try not to take their worries home with me, but I do,” said McWhirter. “I worry about them and hope I am able to make things just a little easier for them.”
For more information on patient travel benefits, go to
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