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Air Force spouse testifies on military families with special needs

Jeremy Hilton testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton, who is married to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is an advocate for military families with special needs and is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Jeremy Hilton testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton, who is married to U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is an advocate for military families with special needs and is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Jeremy Hilton testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton, who is married to Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is an advocate for military families with special needs and is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Jeremy Hilton testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton, who is married to Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is an advocate for military families with special needs and is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Witnesses testify before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. From the left are Dr. Karen Guice, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and principal deputy director of the TRICARE Management Activity; Dr. Rebecca Posante, the deputy director of the Department of Defense Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs; Dr. Vera Tait, the associate executive director of the Department of Community and Specialty Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics; Jeremy Hilton, a military spouse, veteran and military family advocate; Dr. Geraldine Dawson, the chief science officer for Autism Speaks and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and John O'Brien, the director of healthcare and insurance with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Hilton, who is a stay-at-home parent and married to Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Witnesses testify before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. From the left are Dr. Karen Guice, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs and principal deputy director of the TRICARE Management Activity; Dr. Rebecca Posante, the deputy director of the Department of Defense Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs; Dr. Vera Tait, the associate executive director of the Department of Community and Specialty Pediatrics, American Academy of Pediatrics; Jeremy Hilton, a military spouse, veteran and military family advocate; Dr. Geraldine Dawson, the chief science officer for Autism Speaks and a professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and John O'Brien, the director of healthcare and insurance with the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. Hilton, who is a stay-at-home parent and married to Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Jeremy Hilton testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton, who is married to Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is an advocate for military families with special needs and is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Jeremy Hilton testifies before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton, who is married to Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, is an advocate for military families with special needs and is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Jeremy Hilton and Charles Milam talk prior to a hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton provided testimony on Department of Defense programs and policies in support of military families with special needs. Hilton is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012 and Milam is the principal director for military community and family policy (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

Jeremy Hilton and Charles Milam talk prior to a hearing in front of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel in Washington, D.C., June 21, 2012. Hilton provided testimony on Department of Defense programs and policies in support of military families with special needs. Hilton is the Military Spouse of the Year for 2012 and Milam is the principal director for military community and family policy (U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash)

WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- An Air Force spouse testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Personnel here June 21 about programs and policies that support military families with special needs.

Jeremy Hilton, a Navy veteran who was recently named the 2012 Military Spouse of the Year by Military Spouse magazine, testified along with Dr. Karen Guice, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, as well as representatives from the Office of Community Support for Military Families with Special Needs, the Office of Personnel Management and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Hilton is the spouse of Lt. Col. Renae Hilton, an Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent on Joint Base Andrews, Md. He was a Navy officer but resigned his commission after his daughter was born with disabilities in 2002.

In addition to being a stay-at-home dad, Hilton has been instrumental in bringing to light the challenges faced by military families with special needs, especially those with autism.

"A recent National Council on Disability Military Family Study concluded far-reaching systemic changes are needed in our nation's health, education and long-term service systems to address the significant barriers faced by exceptional family members," Hilton said. "This hearing is a critical step in addressing and acting on these extraordinarily important issues to our military families."

Caring for a child with a disability can be both expensive and stressful, leading many military families to require waiver assistance for their children, Hilton said. However, Medicaid waiver wait lists are often long.

"Every time a military family moves, they go to the bottom of the next state's wait list," Hilton said, who pointed out that many military families rarely reach the top before moving again.

The military spouse offered some potential solutions, to include a military Medicaid waiver, an interstate compact addressing portability, allowing service members to maintain wait list eligibility based on their home of record, and extending benefits provided under TRICARE's Extended Care Health Option, or ECHO.

One ECHO benefit Hilton addressed is an autism treatment known as applied behavior analysis. Applied behavior analysis is a method of behavioral conditioning that teaches and reinforces desired behaviors. The technique has been found to help teach new skills and improve communication abilities for children with autism spectrum disorders.

Guice said the Department of Defense implemented a demonstration project in 2008 to determine if TRICARE could expand the availability of applied behavior analysis providers and is now in the process of converting the demonstration project into a permanent part of the ECHO program.

Hilton said military families are grateful for the ECHO benefit, but they would like to see it updated and made more flexible.

"What we look forward to is enhanced functionality and flexibility of the ECHO program," Hilton said, pointing out that ECHO benefits are only available for dependents of active-duty service members. Therefore, dependents of military retirees are unable to access applied behavior analysis treatments under TRICARE.

Hilton said he hopes the committee will take such issues under consideration, as it considers the fiscal 2013 National Defense Appropriations Act, in order to help military children with special needs.

"It is an amazing privilege to be able to represent a million-plus military spouses and their families," Hilton said. "In the end, we ask that our children are not penalized for the service their mother or father renders to the nation."