WASHINGTON (AFNS) --
About a year ago, Maj. Nicholas Sabula received word of an upcoming assignment following his deployment in Afghanistan.
He became concerned, however, when he learned that his new duty station and the local area didn't have adequate services for his son, who was diagnosed with autism in 2006. But shortly after, based on a recommendation from his Exceptional Family Member Program coordinator, Sabula's assignment was cancelled and instead, he moved to Washington, D.C.
"The benefit to our son was tremendous," he said. "It showed the availability of services at one location versus another can make an incredible impact on a child.
"Knowing that EFMP took care of my family, that was critical to me," he added.
Ensuring military families with special medical and educational needs receive the best care and support possible is the goal of the Exceptional Family Member Program, said Rebecca Posante, deputy director of the department's office of community support for military families with special needs.
The program assists these families with everything from assignments, as in Sabula's case, to referrals for military and community resources, with a focus on three key areas: identification and enrollment, assignment coordination and family support, Posante said.
Goodfellow's Exceptional Family Member Program Coordinator, Pamela Flemions, added that enrollment in the program is mandatory for active duty Air Force members who have a family member with medical or special needs - whether a spouse, child or dependent adult.
"Even if a patient isn't currently receiving treatment but has a physical or emotional condition that may require medical care, he is considered to have a special need," she said.
According to Posante, conditions run the gamut, covering everything from asthma and allergies to autism and Alzheimer's disease.
The Air Force defines a special medical need as any condition that cannot be resolved by a family practice physician and requires ongoing care or treatment by a specialist, Flemions added.
Special educational needs include children 3-21 whose schools have them on an Individualized Education Program, children 3 or younger who have an Individualized Family Service Plan, or those who are being evaluated for special education, related services or early intervention services.
An enrollment referral can come from several sources, Posante explained, including a military treatment facility or school, or from the service or family member.
Jacqueline Hayes-Hethington, the EFMP coordinator at the Ross Clinic here, handles the enrollment process.
Once enrolled, the service member's records would include a "flag," which serves as an alert that the member's family may need special consideration when up for an assignment, whether stateside or overseas. Posante said this ensures a family member's special needs are considered in the assignment process.
"There may be places where if a family member has a particular issue, it may not be advisable for you to go to this area," she noted, citing asthma as an example.
The condition might be fine at one location, but exacerbated at another, she explained. Or, a child or spouse may need a specialized orthopedic program that's only offered in certain locations.
The program also helps to avoid treatment disruptions, Posante noted. If a cancer patient is undergoing treatment at one base, a program coordinator can recommend that patient not be moved until therapy is completed.
"We're saying, 'Let's take this into consideration before we put you into an untenable situation,'" she said. "We're looking only at medical and educational needs to be met where they're going."
Flemions said she works closely with Hayes-Hethington and the military personnel section here to resolve any issues families may have with the relocation process, information and resources.
"Often families are overwhelmed after enrollment with the prospect of figuring out the system, forms and resources," she said. "The experience can be very stressful for the caregiver. I have connected with families that were very appreciated of knowing 'family support' is available."
Flemions said the Airman and Family Readiness Center can help EFMP-enrolled families receive assistance through the military and civilian community, and that there's a Special Needs Resource Center with DVDs, books and other material specific to families with special needs available for check-out at the center's Discovery Resource Center in building 145.
Military families who aren't near an installation, including those of the National Guard and Reserve, can call a Military OneSource consultant for support and to discuss special-needs concerns. Families can receive 12 free consultations per year by calling (800) 342-9647 or by visiting the OneSource website at www.MilitaryOneSource.com.
FMI: Pamela Flemions at (325) 654-3893 or Jacqueline Hayes-Hethington at (325) 654-3933.
(Connie Hempel, 17th Training Wing Public Affairs Office, contributed to this article.)