Ever since outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced a week ago that the U.S. military would lift its ban on women in combat roles, the debate, which has been simmering for decades, boiled up again. Much of the argument has centered on cultural, social, and morale-related effects that such a change would bring about, though other practical issues have been raised as well. However, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released just this week may bring some other considerations to the fore, among them, the financial impact.
According to the introduction to the GAO report, the National Defense Authorization Act For Fiscal Year 2012 charged the GAO with conducting “a review of the female-specific health care services provided by DOD to female servicemembers...” Though not directly addressed by the GAO, the report raises a perhaps unanticipated consequence of lifting the ban on women in combat. With an increasing number of women in combat units, as well as presumably an overall increase in women enlisting in the service now that more positions will be open to them, there may be a corresponding increase in health-related costs. For example, the report says:
DOD has put in place policies and guidance that include female-specific aspects to help address the health care needs of servicewomen during deployment. Also, as part of pre-deployment preparations, servicewomen are screened for potentially deployment-limiting conditions, such as pregnancy, and DOD officials and health care providers with whom GAO met noted that such screening helps ensure that many female-specific health care needs are addressed prior to deployment.
The “female-specific aspects” of health care are self-evident, but for confirmation, one need look no further than the Affordable Care Act with its 145 uses of the word “women” versus one use of “men.” Although women already serve in many areas of the military, the full (or near-full) integration will certainly impact the amount of “female-specific ” medical equipment, supplies, and expertise needed by each branch of the service to meet the increased demand. Examination rooms may need to be retooled and medics may need further training. Additionally, the “potentially deployment-limiting conditions, such as pregnancy” can be screened for, but will still affect associated costs, not to mention the readiness of units destined for combat, in a way that is not present with male-only units. The report implies this when it says:
Given the expanding and evolving role of women in the military, the health and wellness of servicewomen plays an important role in overall military readiness.
The exact cost of women in combat is not revealed in the GAO report.
But at a time when the defense budget is under increasing scrutiny, and with the threat of sequestration slashing the budget further, the likely increased healthcare costs associated with the lifting of the ban should be taken into account.
Higher costs may not be the most important aspect of the policy change, but neither can they be ignored. The higher percentage of the defense budget that must be devoted to routine healthcare, the lower the percentage that is available for areas more directly related to keeping the U.S. military the best equipped, best trained fighting force in the world, ready at a moment’s notice to deploy whenever and wherever needed.