Navy doctors and dentists are told they owe 3 more years of service after military admits to another record-keeping error

Anuj Shrestha for NBC News

Dozens of military doctors and dentists preparing for retirement owe at least three more years of service because of record-keeping errors, the Navy said Friday — the second time in a week that military officials have publicly admitted to discovering administrative oversights that have derailed lives.

At least 65 dentists and physicians with the Navy Reserves have had three to four years of service erased from their records after an error was discovered in how their retirement credits had been calculated, the Navy said. Navy Reserve dentists and doctors provide care to members of any branch of service and their family members.

Four affected physicians and dentists came forward with their plights, speaking to NBC News on the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, days after the Army acknowledged a similar administrative error affecting hundreds of aviation officers.

“They’re trying anyway possible to retain us, even if it is trying to strong-hand us,” one dentist said.

That dentist had invested $2 million in opening a private practice in anticipation of retiring this summer. One of the physicians said he had sold his house and car to move overseas before learning he owed three more years.

“I feel like I’m trapped,” another doctor said. “It’s terrible. It’s unfair. It’s dishonorable.”

To retire with benefits, which kick in at age 60, members of the Reserves must accumulate at least 20 years of qualifying service.

For years, doctors and dentists who participated in the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program were awarded up to four years in retirement credit if they went on to join the Selected Reserve — the military's primary source of backup manpower — after fulfilling their active duty service obligations.

The Army, Navy and Air Force used that credit as an incentive to retain health care workers, who were considered to be a “critical wartime shortage speciality,” according to a 2002 Army memorandum issuing guidance on the policy.

While the Army and Air Force confirmed it still allows doctors and dentists to use that credit toward retirement, those in the Navy Reserves started seeing that credit vanish from their records last year.

In January 2022, one physician’s record reflected that he had accumulated 19 years of qualifying service. Six months later, it went down to 16 years.

An official letter, sent by Navy Personnel Command last June and obtained by NBC News, said an "error was discovered" and a "review of all program participants’ records indicated that non-creditable time has been calculated as credible."

A "data migration issue" within the Navy Standard Integrated Personnel System "prematurely" awarded four years of service credit to officers, Cmdr. Rick Chernitzer, a Navy Personnel Command spokesperson, said in a statement to NBC News.

The error had previously allowed 95 people to retire before they were eligible, Chernitzer said.

The Navy said the affected medical professionals would still get credit for those years served — but only after they had reached the required 20 years, which weakens a much-needed incentive, the health care workers said.

One of the dentists said that there is no benefit to receiving credit after hitting the 20-year mark and that he would not have taken the offer had he known.

“The four years was offered as a recruiting incentive, and to blame a migration error is a bold-faced lie,” he said.

A 2020 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, which looked into retention issues, found that military physicians and dentists are generally paid less than those in the private sector.

Compensation also factors into why Army aviation officers favor becoming pilots for major airlines over staying in the military, several officers said.

Many affected physicians, dentists and aviators believe retention challenges across the military may be leading branches to reinterpret retirement and separation policies.

In a phone call with reporters last Thursday, Army officials said more than 600 aviation officers are being held to another three years of service after they noticed “errors” in the system a few months ago.

As part of a program known as BRADSO, cadets commissioning from the U.S. Military Academy or Army Cadet Command from 2008 and 2020 were able to request a branch of their choice, including aviation, by agreeing to serve an additional three years on active duty.

For years, the Army allowed some aviation officers to serve those three years concurrently, and not consecutively, along with their roughly contracted seven or eight years of service.

In letters the Army sent this month to the affected aviators as well as to members of Congress, it said it “realized” after conducting a “legal review of this policy” that the three-year BRADSO requirement has to be served separately.

The Defense Department did not immediately say whether any other branch or unit has been affected by record errors that are being corrected.

Meanwhile, those affected are scrambling to navigate their futures.

The physicians and dentists in the Navy Reserves are not bound by contracts and can leave if they want, but they would lose their retirement benefits, which include a pension and health care, so close to the finish line.

The dentist who started a private practice now worries about being tagged for deployment. If that happens, she said she would forgo her benefits rather than abandon her patients and employees for more than a year.

“I was trying to sail away into the sunset because I earned it,” she said.

Others said they are resigned to their fate and will stay because the retirement benefits outweigh their outrage.

“It’s a big carrot dangling in front of us to get that retirement,” a physician said.

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