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BRAC changes to medicine focus on care, training, research

By Staff Sgt. C. Todd Lopez

WASHINGTON (June 06, 2005) -- Airmen bound for a career in the Air Force Medical Service will start off by training in a joint environment if all Base Realignment and Closure recommendations are approved.

The changes will not completely homogenize training for enlisted medical specialists, but they will allow all the services to share resources, said the chairman for the medical joint cross service group for BRAC 2005.

"The recommendation is to move all Air Force medical training out of Shepherd Air Force Base, Texas, to Fort Sam Houston, Texas," said Air Force Surgeon General Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr. "That's where the Army school house is."

Part of that recommendation is that Navy officials also move their enlisted medical training to San Antonio.

"Think of it as a university campus, with a Navy college, an Air Force college and an Army college for enlisted training," Dr. Taylor said. "They will be able to share resources, lab and class space, and teaching and administrative staff. They will work together, like we do in wartime."

The general also said each service, while working together to train its medics, would still maintain unique training tracks for its people. Airmen will still train to the Air Force's unique mission.

"The challenge is to put the curriculums together, look for the common areas, and not lose the fact these are still Airmen in training," he said. "They will not be purple medics; they will be Airmen medics."

Besides its focus on military medical training facilities, the joint cross service group also looked for ways to optimize how the services provide medical care and conduct biomedical research.

All services conduct various forms of biomedical research. The general said the group felt it best to merge much of that research into joint activities.

"We recommended the creation of joint centers of excellence," the general said. "This means bringing together the best research and development, and acquisition professionals from the Army, Navy and Air Force and putting them in a location that makes the best possible sense."

The general said the group suggested the creation of six joint centers of excellence to conduct biomedical research. Those centers include an aerospace medicine center at Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio; a chemical defense center at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Md.; a biological defense center at Fort Detrick, Md.; and center for battlefield health and trauma at Fort Sam Houston.

The group also recommended realigning the availability of medical care at facilities nationwide. This included recommendations to realign Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and medical facilities in San Antonio.

"In the National Capitol Region, our group felt we didn't need four hospitals," the general said. "A wise investment would be to have two military hospitals in the nation's capital. Our recommendation is to have a 165-bed hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., and create the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center by building up the Bethesda campus. We expect these to all be jointly staffed."

Currently, the four hospitals in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area are Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., Malcolm Grow Medical Center at Andrews AFB, Md., and the DeWitt Army Community Hospital at Fort Belvoir.

The general said infrastructure already in place at the Bethesda Naval facility, and the age of infrastructure at Walter Reed make the Bethesda site an ideal location for development of a larger, more modern joint medical facility. Recommendations by other BRAC joint cross service groups will increase the size of Fort Belvoir, an already busy military community just south of Washington, D.C., making that location ideal for the region's second military hospital.

The group also recommended realignment of medical care facilities in the San Antonio region. Most notably, the group suggested inpatient care at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland AFB, Texas, be moved to Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston.

"We suggested that instead of running another hospital at Lackland, we install a new, almost 500,000 square foot ambulatory surgery center and outpatient facility," he said. "Combined with new construction at Brooke Army Medical Center, this will rebuild the medical infrastructure in San Antonio and make it ready for the 21st century military."

Despite the suggested realignments to improve the DOD's medical infrastructure, Dr. Taylor said what matters most has not changed.

"Nothing in the basic recommendations that came out of our group changed the level of care we can provide," he said. "It is the same care, but maybe in a new location. In many places, we recommended closing inpatient care, but we wanted simply to move that care to a neighboring facility or a civilian facility."

Even in the communities outside Cannon AFB, N.M. and Ellsworth AFB, S.D., where there is a recommendation to close the entire base, plans are in the works to ensure military retirees in the area are taken care of.

"In those places where the BRAC commission recommends closing, we are working with Tricare contractors to ensure there is a good transition plan for retirees," he said.

Dr. Taylor also said that none of the recommendations of his joint cross service group are final until BRAC recommendations are approved by the president and Congress this fall.