Congress Ratchets Up Oversight of Army Hospital
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs on Monday held a hearing at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center to address concerns about quality of care and living conditions at the facility, during which Army officials "ackowledg[ed] ... that they have failed in the care of wounded veterans," the Los Angeles Times reports (Neuman/Schreck, Los Angeles Times, 3/6).
The Washington Post recently published a two-part series that examined conditions at the military hospital. One article profiled the state of Building 18, which has mold, cockroaches and stained carpets, among other issues. The series also examined the process by which injured soldiers seek disability compensation.
Maj. Gen. George Weightman was fired as commander of Walter Reed last week because the Army said it had lost confidence in his leadership abilities.
According to veterans groups and some members of Congress, top military officials including Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley have known about problems at the facility since 2003.
Kiley -- surgeon general of the Army and commander of the U.S. Army Medical Command, who previously served as commander of Walter Reed -- was named temporary chief of the facility after Weightman's departure.
However, Kiley on Friday was replaced by Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, who now serves as acting chief. Schoomaker previously was commander of the Army's Medical Research and Material Command at Fort Detrick, Md.
His brother, Gen. Peter Schoomaker, is the Army chief of staff. In addition, Army Secretary Francis Harvey was fired by Defense Secretary Robert Gates (California Healthline, 3/5).
Several senior military commanders testified during the hearing. Weightman apologized to soldiers and their families "for not meeting their expectations, not only in the care provided, but also in having so many bureaucratic processes" (Abramowitz/Vogel, Washington Post, 3/6). He added, "I failed. We can't fail one of these soldiers or their families, not one. And we did" (Los Angeles Times, 3/6).
Weightman said that systems designed to monitor patient satisfaction had failed to catch problems at the facility. He cited an anonymous survey conducted at Walter Reed in January that showed 90% satisfaction among patients regarding case workers and physicians (Heilprin, AP/Chicago Sun-Times, 3/5).
Kiley also apologized for conditions at Walter Reed during the hearing. He said, "Simply put, I am in command. And as I share these failures, I also accept the responsibility and the challenge for rapid corrective action."
Kiley said that he had not asked Congress for money to correct the problems because he did not think the problems were financial in nature. He said the outpatient care system is "complex, confusing and frustrating" and that more medical staff are being brought in to handle the increasing patient case load (Flaherty, AP/Austin American-Statesman, 3/6).
Lawmakers "expressed skepticism that the generals had been unaware of the problems until they were spotlighted by the media two weeks ago," the Post reports.
Subcommittee Chair John Tierney (D-Mass.) said, "I have to tell you, the first thing that pops into my mind is: Where've you been?" (Washington Post, 3/6). Tierney added, "Where does the buck stop? There appears to be a pattern developing here that we've seen before: First deny, then try to cover up, then designate a fall guy. In this case, I have concerns that the Army is literally trying to whitewash over the problems."
Lawmakers at the hearing also expressed concern that the problems at Walter Reed are indicative of nationwide issues at military hospitals (Coile, San Francisco Chronicle, 3/6).
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chair Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) said the conditions at Walter Reed are "the tip of the iceberg of what is going on all around the country," adding that veterans and their families are "flooding" lawmakers with complaints about poor medical care (Los Angeles Times, 3/6).
Waxman and other Democrats at the hearing said that a Bush administration push to privatize outpatient care at the facility had led to a decline in quality of care.
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said, "A $120 million contract [led to] downsizing and shows that there is an ideology still at work that puts profit ahead of public services. That has to change" (Kaplan, The Hill, 3/6).
Two veterans and the wife of an injured Army veteran testified about the conditions at Walter Reed during the hearing (Washington Post, 3/6).
President Bush last week ordered the formation of a review panel to examine military and veteran hospitals nationwide (California Healthline, 3/5). Bush on Tuesday announced that former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and former HHS Secretary Donna Shalala will lead the investigation (AP/Contra Costa Times, 3/6).
Vice President Dick Cheney before the national legislative conference of the Veterans of Foreign Wars on Monday said that Bush "has made our administration's priority very clear to the Congress and to the country: There will be no excuses, only action. And the federal bureaucracy will not slow that action down." He added, "We're going to fix the problems at Walter Reed, period" (Washington Post, 3/6).
Kiley said renovations currently are under way to fix problems at Walter Reed. He also said that investigators have been sent to 11 other military medical facilities across the country to ensure that problems found at Walter Reed are not widespread (AP/Chicago Sun-Times, 3/5).
Democratic lawmakers have said they will work to improve health care for retired veterans and increase a White House spending request for funding to care for wounded active-duty troops, the AP/American-Statesman reports.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said, "Our budget will make new or expanded investments in shared national priorities -- from preparing our children for success to honoring our veterans with services worthy of their sacrifice -- within the context of fiscal reality and reforms that will help ensure taxpayer dollars are wisely spent" (AP/Austin American-Statesman, 3/6).
The Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday will hold a hearing on Walter Reed (California Healthline, 3/5).
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment features an interview with VA Secretary Jim Nicholson (Block, "All Things Considered," NPR, 3/6). Audio of the segment is available online.
- NPR's "All Things Considered": The segment includes testimony from Weightman; Army Staff Sgt. Daniel Shannon; Annette McCleod, the wife of an injured National Guard member; Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.); and Tierney (Raz, "All Things Considered, "NPR, 3/5). Audio of the segment is available online.
- PBS' "NewsHour": The segment includes testimony from Kiley; SPC. Jeremy Duncan; Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.); Waxman; Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.); Weightman; McCleod; Shannon; Davis; and Tierney (Holman, "NewsHour," NPR, 3/5). Audio of the segment is available online.
- WAMU's "Diane Rehm Show": The program includes a discussion with Washington Post reporter Anne Hull, Post intelligence correspondent Dana Priest, Disabled American Veterans Executive Director David Gorman and Linda Blimes, a professor of public finance at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University (Rehm, "Diane Rehm Show," WAMU, 3/6). Audio of the segment will be available online following the broadcast.