DoD health spending has reached $50 billion annually or nearly 10 percent of overall defense budget
As Congress debates budgets and Republicans and Democrats spar over the nation’s fiscal path, another part of the federal government is looking for ways to optimize budgets by taking on the most urgent public health crisis facing our country—obesity in America. No, it is not the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), but the Department of Defense (DoD). The most recent CDC figures reveal that two thirds of American adults are overweight or obese and one third of American children. This not only affects health care costs and quality of life for millions of Americans, but it also affects our national security. From a recruitment standpoint, 27 percent of 17-24 year-olds cannot join the military because they are too overweight to serve. Some may not realize that overweight and obesity also pose challenges to retaining current service members and their families: DoD has to separate thousands of service members every year from the military because they cannot pass the required fitness tests. The cost implications of this chronic disease burden are significant for the government. DoD health spending has reached $50 billion annually or nearly 10% of overall defense budget.
In our BPC report Lots to Lose: How America’s Health and Obesity Crisis Threatens Our Economic Future, released last June, we identified a number of opportunities for DoD to build on its efforts to improve the health of service members and their families and decrease health care costs. This week, DoD launched the Healthy Base Initiative (HBI) as a demonstration project for Operation Live Well, a 20-year campaign to focus the military community (service members, Guard and reserve, families, veterans, and civilians) on improving or sustaining a balanced life.
The Healthy Base Initiative (HBI) is more than an employee wellness program, it is a systematic approach to encourage individual behavior change as well as change the DoD environment to foster healthier lifestyles. The goals of HBI align directly with DoD’s mission to provide the military forces needed to deter war and to protect the security of our country. Optimal recruitment, readiness and retention are critical to that mission and are only possible if we combat the rising tide of unhealthy lifestyles and chronic diseases, such as obesity.
Military service members and their families often live in high stress environments. Our hope with HBI is that DoD can help make the healthy choice the easy choice. When a service member comes off a shift, is there an open dining or retail facility selling healthy food? When a spouse picks up a child from daycare, are there affordable and healthy food options available nearby? When the family wants to go out on a day off, can they walk or bike easily (and safely) from their house? Can DoD create a community where choices that lead to better health are easy, convenient, and affordable?
The Department of Defense has chosen 13 pilot locations to test initiatives that promote healthy eating, active living, and tobacco-free living. Eleven of the pilot sites participating in the Healthy Base Initiative assessment are military installations: Fort Bragg, NorthCarolina; Fort Sill, Oklahoma; Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii; Submarine Base New London, Connecticut; Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho; Yokota Air Base, Japan; Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center/Marine Air Ground Task Force Training Command, Twentynine Palms, California; Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia; Coast Guard Air Station Cape Cod, Massachusetts; March Air Force Base, California; and, Camp Dodge, Iowa.
The other two pilot sites are the Defense Logistics Agency at Fort Belvoir, Virginia, and the Defense Health Headquarters, Falls Church, Virginia.
At each of the pilot locations, DoD will first measure the health of service members and their families to establish a baseline from which to monitor changes in health outcomes. This summer, DoD will then launch different interventions at these sites and evaluate their efficacy. Because approximately 70% of military families live off base and most military children attend public school, the DoD is hoping that other government agencies, community groups, businesses and non-profits working to increase physical activity and healthy eating will collaborate in the pilot communities. DoD’s vision is that these 13 pilot locations will identify effective strategies that can serve as models for the rest of the military (and potentially the nation) in future years.
We applaud Department of Defense’s decision to tackle a crisis and lead by example.