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Health and wellness centers to close

Alternative programs in the works

Jun. 4, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
UTA
Airman take part in the tire-flipping race during a PT session. Despite the coming closing of health and wellness centers, officials said airmen and their families can still expect a focus on health. (Master Sgt. Dave Buttner/Air Force)
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The Air Force will do away with health and wellness centers over the next year as it cuts costs and reorganizes its efforts to keep airmen healthy.

Once a base mainstay for fitness assessments, health risk appraisals and nutrition and weight counseling, the centers have experienced shrinking staffs over the last several years, chief of health promotion for the Air Force Medical Support Agency Col. John Oh said in an interview with Air Force Times.

The service plans to eliminate two positions that have typically made up the centers — exercise physiologists and health and fitness technicians — in fiscal 2015. Those employees, mostly civilians and contractors, will be offered transition assistance and get priority placement for other base jobs they qualify for, said Larine Barr, a spokeswoman for the Air Force surgeon general.

Airmen and their families can still expect a focus on health.

The Air Force Medical Service will continue to provide profiles for ill or injured airmen exempt from the fitness program plus weight management programs for those who are not meeting body composition assessment standards, according to the surgeon general’s office.

The medical support agency is working with base fitness centers Air Force manpower and personnel to ensure mandatory group PT, traditionally overseen by exercise physiologists, is “led by someone who is trained in being able to do it in a safe and effective manner,” Oh said.

Bases will set their own timeline for closing the centers, Oh said, and some installations may continue to use the space.

“What we’re closing or retiring is the term ‘health and wellness center.’ There may be some bases that say we’re going to keep this space … but they’re going to call it health promotion program and not health and wellness center,” he said. “We’re going to have a really standard model [that includes] a health promotion coordinator and in some cases a dietitian.”

The Air Force will employ the latter at about 40 installations, Oh said.

“We are looking as part of our new way ahead to really ask our health promotion staff to be that person on the base who can help advance a culture of health across the base — not just within the [military treatment center],” he said.

The idea is that health is a lifestyle and not a facility.

“We need to move from health care to health,” he said. “We need to go beyond just great clinical care, which should be a given. I think it’s a different mindset. That’s where we’re trying to go with this.”

Health promotion staff will support the Community Action Information Board, connect with commanders, senior noncommissioned officers and medics and advocate for policy and environmental change “to help make healthy living the easy choice and the social norm on base,” Oh said.

“Let’s say we want to promote a tobacco- free environment. We can hire a bunch of tobacco cessation counselors and have them do that all of the time. That’s very labor-intensive, very one-on-one. The alternative is to promote changes through communication and policy: expand tobacco-free environments, countermarketing- campaign through media, trying to influence leadership at the wing and group level, partnering with other like-minded folk who have an interest in tobacco-free living, like the local health department and the American Lung Association.”

Staying healthy is more critical than ever to the mission as the Air Force cuts manpower and budgets, Oh said.

“The bar is raised when dealing with trying to do more with less. We need to have a workforce that is healthy, fit and resilient and operate in a culture and environment where health is just what we do,” he said.

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