Instead of military families getting clearly defined health care benefits from a grateful country, the families could feel like, well, the country is ungrateful.

Some active duty service members, retirees and their families could lose access to the top tier of the military’s health care plan when a new contractor takes over the plan in the spring.

Tens of thousands would not be able to obtain what is called TRICARE Prime. It’s a managed-care plan similar to an HMO. More families would have to make the switch to TRICARE Standard. It’s a fee-for-service plan and requires families to do their own claims paperwork.

What’s in store is essentially less access to care. United Healthcare is taking over the administration of TRICARE in Oregon and other Western states on April 1. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River, says reports indicate it will offer TRICARE Prime to only a sliver of the military population — only those within 40 miles of military treatment facilities. There are two military treatment facilities in Oregon, one in Astoria and another in North Bend.

When the first hints of the change came out in Army Times, Department of Defense spokeswoman Cynthia Smith told that publication the switch was an effort to improve health care for active-duty populations near military treatment facilities that have been understaffed “due to the deployment requirements of military medical providers.”

That’s a semblance of a justification. And we’d also bet that TRICARE Prime is more expensive to administer than TRICARE Standard.

But where the Defense Department failed military families is in letting them know what’s going on and why.

Smith says no final decision on a switch has been made, but it’s apparently been building since 2007.

Walden sent a letter to the Defense Department to try to get some answers. The entire Oregon delegation followed up a few days later with a bipartisan request for the same thing.

It may be that the Department of Defense has a good argument that what it has offered in the past is no longer affordable or feasible. What is it? Trying to sneak this major change quietly along is no way to treat military families.