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US troops, dependents denied emergency medical care in Japan

A photo of military boots during the deployment ceremony for the Alabama Army National Guard 128th Military Police Company leaving for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. (Bob Gathany/HVT/TNS)
February 19, 2024

In 2023, the seven-year-old daughter of a Marine stationed in Okinawa died from a traumatic brain injury while the ambulance she was in spent 35 minutes attempting to find a trauma center that could treat her. In another case, a military member’s spouse was denied admission to several Tokyo hospitals and died of intracranial hemorrhage. These tragedies are just two of the 24 cases in which active-duty members, dependents, or Department of Defense (DOD) contractors have been denied care in Japanese hospitals in the last 14 months, according to a military investigation. 

The difficulty for Americans in finding healthcare in Japan is long-standing. In 2021, a 58-year-old Navy veteran working as a DOD contractor on Yakota Air Force Base suffered a heart attack. Despite an ambulance arriving within minutes, he was held at the local hospital for hours while paramedics searched for a facility that could treat him.

Before one could be found, his condition progressed to brain damage, followed by death. Ten facilities had been contacted prior to his death. All refused to take him as a patient. According to Stars and Stripes, his widow, Kathy Hakun, felt the lack of care directly contributed to his death.

“Anybody on that base who has to go through urgent care is running an unsurvivable risk,” Hakun said. 

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These deaths have led to grassroots advocacy, the largest of which is the Japanese Civilian Medical Advocacy group on Facebook. In December, the group announced that the first Government Accountability Office study into the difficulties Americans are facing finding healthcare in Japan was underway. 

The group maintains a self-reported spreadsheet of medical care denials, which totaled 70 cases in 2022, indicating the issue may be more widespread than reported. Many military members and their dependents point to the revision passed in January 2023 that limited the way Americans can receive care at military hospitals in Japan.

Under the new regulations, immediate medical needs were slotted as ‘A’ spots for care, with active-duty members given priority. These spots were also prioritized for members or dependents utilizing Tricare Prime over other insurance plans. The move was implemented in an attempt to prevent overcrowding in military hospitals. Additionally, few military medical facilities are equipped to handle trauma cases. 

The issue is further complicated by Japan’s emergency medical care system, which is in its development stages. There simply aren’t enough emergency and trauma-trained physicians available to provide care.