VICENZA, Italy - The Vicenza military community's first Meet the Providers Expo, an event designed to facilitate interaction between members of the VMC and local health care providers, attracted an estimated 400 Army civilian employees, contractors, Department of Defense Education Activity employees, retirees, Soldiers and family members Sept. 19, on Caserma Ederle.

Expo participants included health care providers practicing in Vicenza and the surrounding communities; U.S. insurance companies with federal employee policies, as well as the local Tricare liaison; representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and local translation services. Providers with individual practices, partnerships and clinics represented a wide range of specialties, including: behavioral health, child development, dentistry, internal medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, ophthalmology, orthopedics, pediatrics and physical therapy.

The event was the direct result of a leadership and community response to a January garrison town hall in which participants voiced frustration with decreasing health care availability on post for civilians, contractors and other non-Tricare beneficiaries, according to Amy Cates, the community readiness and resiliency integrator.

"There was a lot of emotion at that town hall," she said. "Col. (Erik) Berdy, (then-U.S. Army Garrison-Italy commander), asked me to gather a focus group together to work on community-led solutions to this problem, because it's a problem that's not owned by anybody. The health clinic isn't responsible, and, legally, they can't recommend services off-post. So, the idea was to find a community-led solution to a community problem."

The resulting civilian health care focus group, which quickly transitioned into a working group, is composed of Cates and volunteer civilians, Soldiers, DODEA employees, contractors and family members, and was organized as part of the Commander's Readiness and Resiliency Council, which addresses readiness and resiliency issues and briefs its findings quarterly to the senior responsible officer, Maj. Gen. Roger Cloutier, the U.S. Army Africa commander.

"Health care is a huge readiness issue, so addressing the issue of access to care and how it affects readiness was the main reason we wanted to bring this to the community," Cates said.

The expo was the third step in the civilian health care working group's three-pronged strategy to ensure members of the community both understand the limited nature of civilian access to care at the Vicenza health clinic and feel empowered to find qualified local Italian health care providers, Cates said.

The first step was to create a website with detailed and accurate information specifically for non-Tricare beneficiaries and for care that falls outside of the health clinic's scope. The second step included presenting twice monthly newcomer briefs explaining what to expect and how to approach finding health care on the economy.

For the third step, the working group invited the providers listed on the website to come to post to meet members of the community.

"That way, the community members could physically, face to face, meet each one of them and ask their questions and feel comfortable," Cates said.

The expo received an overwhelmingly positive response, according to Angela Lands, a CR2C volunteer and member of the working group.

What we heard was: This was a great idea. Why haven't we done this before? When are we doing the next one?" she said. "One lady just hugged me."

The feedback from the local providers was also overwhelmingly positive.

"They were very thankful," Lands said. "We asked them when they left, would you be willing to come back? And they all said absolutely, let's keep in touch. We didn't have a single person say no. I'm still in awe of all the great feedback we got from everybody.

"I really hope the (VMC) sees Italian health care in a positive light. According to the world health organization, Italy always, within the last five years, ranks very highly for the best healthcare in the world in criteria such as cost, quality of care, number of providers, provider education and more. They see people as patients and as people. They don't see their patients as a number or as a euro or dollar sign. They're there to treat you. I want the community to understand that and see that these providers are willing to work with us too."

During the five years he has been in Italy, Craig Cotter, the U.S. Army Africa deputy chief of staff, has had only great experiences with Vicenza health care providers. "It has been all first class care and compares very positively with any care I've received in the U.S. or during other overseas assignments."

Getting comfortable with reaching out to local providers is the key to receiving excellent health care on the economy, and events like the expo provide that opportunity, he said.

"The expo sets the conditions to match people with providers who can help them, and they can get acquainted in a comfortable setting before there is a need," he said. "People can feel vulnerable when they have a health concern and need to be seen; it's a difficult time to look for other resources. This event provides a great opportunity for members of the VMC to see not only the excellent capabilities that are available to them on the economy, but also to meet the people behind those capabilities in a way that is comfortable and familiar without an element of urgency. This is a great thing the CR2C has done by putting this event together."