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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Air Force’s oldest hospital is downsizing.

Bitburg Annex’s hospital, which opened in 1953 — six years after the Air Force was created as a separate branch — will become a clinic July 1. The change will force Americans stationed in the Spangdahlem Air Base area to go to German medical centers for emergency care, operations and child birthing.

Lt. Col. Mark Tesmer, the 52nd Medical Group administrator, said the Air Force is making the move to save money and because medical specialists had a difficult time maintaining their competency and skills serving a community of around 10,000 Americans.

Although Spangdahlem has emerged as one of the Air Force’s most important installations in Europe and millions are being spent to improve it, the Air Force is cutting 40,000 airmen from its worldwide ranks to help pay for new planes and equipment. Eliminating the hospital’s 15 beds, the emergency room, operating room and labor and delivery will result in the loss of 80 active-duty positions.

The health care in the area is excellent, Tesmer said, but the biggest challenge facing Americans going to German hospitals is the “cultural differences.” The Air Force has three patient liaisons, who speak both German and English, to help explain some of the cultural differences and serve as translators when needed.

Because more Americans will be using local hospitals, the Air Force hopes to add three more liaisons by July.

“They’re doing the little things we think will make a difference,” said Lt. Col. Matthew Grinstaff, flight commander for TRICARE operations and patient administration.

German hospitals are bracing for the additional American patients, adding signs in English and offering language classes to nurses and other staff members, Tesmer said. The medical centers also have allowed Americans, including expecting mothers, to tour their facilities.

The Air Force has already held two town hall-style meetings to explain the change and is planning another public meeting sometime before the hospital becomes a clinic.

The hospital delivers between 20 and 30 babies a month. The emergency room sees between 10 and 30 cases daily. Surgeons perform about eight operations a week.

Although many Americans will go to hospitals in the towns of Bitburg, Wittlich and Trier, military clinics at Spangdahlem and Bitburg Annex will continue to see patients for some services. For example, pediatric and gynecology services will still be offered at the Bitburg clinic.

Bitburg Annex, which used be called Bitburg Air Base until the closure of the airfield in the 1990s, is used mostly to house Americans stationed at Spangdahlem. The Air Force plans to close the annex — which includes a high school, child-care center and exchange — once new housing units are built at Spangdahlem. The Air Force could not provide a date on the future move.

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