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Crossroads of the Marine Corps

Changes to TRICARE maternity, leave policy to help working mothers

19 Nov 2015 | Adele Uphaus-Conner Marine Corps Base Quantico

“Breast milk is brain juice,” says Dr. Theresa Nesbitt, a noted obstetrician-gynecologist and author, in a lecture on nutrition before, during, and after pregnancy.

“It is the only substance that causes actual brain growth,” said Marcy Griffo, a registered nurse and international board certified lactation consultant who works as a home visitor for Marine Corps Community Services aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico.

Recent changes made to Tricare’s maternity leave and benefits policy mean that it’s now a little easier for working moms to provide valuable breast-milk to their babies. Paid maternity leave for active duty Marines has been extended from nine weeks to 18 weeks, and the insurance now covers breast pumps, supplies, and breast-feeding counseling at no cost for new mothers.

“This is going to help ease the overwhelming burden for women who are trying to navigate their new roles as moms and Marines,” said Glenda Mitchell, a registered nurse and lactation counselor who works with Griffo as a home visitor for MCCS’s New Parent Support Program.

Mitchell said that 85-87 percent of new mothers start out breastfeeding their babies, but the percentage who are still breast-feeding at six months drops to 45. The primary reasons for that, Mitchell and Griffo said, are that women have to go back to work too soon after birth and they don’t have the necessary supplies for expressing breast milk for their babies while they are at work.

“If you’re going to be away from your baby for more than 20 hours a week, you need a double electric pump,” Griffo said.

That type of pump can cost up to $400, but it is now covered by Tricare’s policy. After obtaining a prescription for a pump, women can either purchase one from a Tricare-authorized supplier or pay for a pump up front and then file a claim. This can be done either before the birth or up to a year after. As of now, there is no limit to the amount Tricare will reimburse.

“This is a benefit provided at no cost,” Mitchell said. “The burden of having to spend that money is no longer an out-of-pocket expense. This can really contribute to a mom reaching her breast-feeding goal.”

Griffo and Mitchell recommend that women pump as often as their babies would eat at home, or a minimum of three times in a typical eight-hour work day. The New Parent Support Program maintains a room in Little Hall exclusively for breast-feeding or pumping, so that is an option for Marines and civilians who work on base. But under the Affordable Care Act, employers are obligated to provide pumping women with a non-bathroom location free of intrusion, preferably with a lock on the door and an electrical outlet.

Griffo said expecting women should let their commanding officers or bosses know while they are still pregnant about their plans to breast-feed. She and Mitchell said they understand that it could be an awkward conversation and that female Marines might encounter resistance due to the extended maternity leave they are now allowed.

But Griffo said that the benefits of breast-feeding extend not just to the mother and the baby, but to the unit as well.

“The U.S. government saves $3.6 million when 50 percent of women breast-feed for six months,” Griffo said, a statistic that comes from a 2001 U.S. government report and is similar to recent findings published in the journal Pediatrics in 2010.

“And on a local level, women miss less work to take their children to the doctor when their children are breast-fed,” Griffo continued. This is because breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight infections.

“Officers and senior enlisted Marines need to talk about this,” Mitchell said. “They need to let it be known that they support breast-feeding moms. We need to normalize it.”

Griffo and Mitchell said they’ve met several new mothers who are also active duty Marines and who have chosen to take only a portion of the 18 weeks of maternity leave they get under Tricare.

“We know Marines are very mission-focused and there’s a sense of invincibility,” Mitchell said. “But this is an opportunity to be with your baby and not have any other distractions or competing priorities. It’s allowing you and your baby to get to know each other. It’s a gift of time with your little one.”

Griffo said that maternity leave is important because it helps ensure a secure attachment bond between mother and baby, and all other relationships the child will form during his or her life will be based on that bond. She said she has personal experience of children who have never been able to form lasting attachments because they never had that foundation.

“Every baby deserves someone to be crazy about them,” she said, quoting pediatrician and author Dr. T. Berry Brazelton.

Marine Corps Base Quantico’s New Parent Support Program offers several resources for expecting and new mothers who are active duty Marines, civilians employed on base, or spouses of active duty Marines. Every other month, NPSP holds a breast-feeding basics class as part of its Understanding Pregnancy course. A breast-feeding support group meets on the first and third Tuesday of every month in the NPSP offices in Little Hall. And Griffo and Mitchell are available to make home visits to support breast-feeding success. There is no cost for the home visits and no limit to how many they will make or how long they will stay.

“This is such a lovely opportunity for new mothers,” Mitchell said of Tricare’s maternity leave and benefits program.

— Writer:

Marine Corps Base Quantico