By Fred W. Baker IIIMarch 6, 2007
WASHINGTON (Army News Service, March 5, 2007) - Army leaders are committed to improving the service's health care systems for wounded servicemembers and their families, top officers told the national security subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform today.
The committee held a meeting at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here to gather facts behind problems reported there that have tarnished the once-stellar reputation of the Army's top medical facility.
Part of the problem, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Richard A. Cody said, is that policies and rules governing many of the health care systems have not been updated for as many as 50 years and have been put to the test by the last five years of war.
"Soldiers and staff are faced with the confusing and frequently demoralizing task of sifting through too much information in too many interdependent decisions and bureaucracies," Cody testified.
Cody said top officials are reviewing the reported problems and already have identified some personnel problems that need to be fixed.
"Our counselors and case mangers are overworked, and they do not receive enough training," he said. "We do not adequately communicate necessary information, and our administrative processes are needlessly cumbersome and, quite frankly, take too long."
Cody also cited problems that are being fixed in the medical holding units where so many of the outpatient problems have been reported in recent weeks.
"Our medical holding units are not manned to the proper level, and we do not assign leaders who can ensure proper accountability, proper discipline and well-being of our wounded Soldiers, ... and our facilities are not maintained to a standard that we know is right," Cody said.
Many problems now are being corrected, Cody said, but some will require congressional support. He pledged to work with the secretary of defense to report back to the committee changes that require congressional support.
"We will do what is right for our Soldiers and our families. They can be assured that the Army leadership is committed and dedicated to ensuring that their quality of life and the quality of their medical care is equal to the quality of their service and their great sacrifice," Cody said.
Dressed in a decorated Army blue uniform, with a patch over his left eye, an emotional Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon told the subcommittee today that he just wants to leave the center's outpatient system. He called his own experience a two-year pattern of neglect, bureaucracy and lack of patient advocacy.
An injured Iraq war veteran, Shannon's account kicked off nearly five hours of testimony, which included wounded servicemembers, family members and top ranking Army officials.
With her eyes staring upward to avoid spilling tears, the wife of a wounded Army soldier told committee members that her husband's first case manager at the center "treated him like a dog" at times and that the system was set up to protect the interests of the Army.
"We need to turn it around. We need to fight for the Soldier," said Annette McLeod, the wife of South Carolina Army National Guard's Cpl. Wendell McLeod. He suffered brain and back injuries while serving in Iraq after being hit by the door of a moving semi-truck.
Subcommittee chairman John Tierney opened the hearings saying that the problems recently aired in the news media are not new, but that complaints of "bureaucratic indifference" have been heard for several years.
Tierny conceded, though, that the medical staff at Walter Reed is dedicated and professional. Tierny said he thought the problems stemmed from "institutional indifference, not individual commitment."
Most of the testimony centered on a broken, bureaucratic personnel system and overworked and under-trained caseworkers with other woven-in themes of pay problems, administrative delays and incompatible medical computer systems.
Coming to light for the first time during the testimony was the possible impact of the Base Realignment and Closure process and the recent conversion of government-provided services to contracted services at the hospital. Army officials testified that skilled civil service employees worried about losing their jobs have left the center, at times dropping staffing amounts by nearly half.
Officials testified they've had difficulty recruiting to fill the positions because the center is scheduled to merge with National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., in 2011. In addition, many of the services were moving to contractor-provided services.
Chief of Staff of the Army Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker said he was "extraordinarily angry and embarrassed that we would have a Building 18," referring to the building cited in Washington Post reports on mold- and rodent-infested living conditions.
He said he supported the firing of Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, the medical center's former commander. Schoomaker's brother, Army Maj. Gen. Eric B. Schoomaker, will become the commanding general of the North Atlantic Regional Medical Command and the medical center, the Army announced March 2.
Army Spc. Jeremy Duncan testified before the committee that the living conditions varied widely among outpatient Soldiers, depending on the building assigned. "Building 18 was like the ghetto," he said, but it had television and video games. He said he has now been moved to Abrams Hall (Building 14), which is nicer, but doesn't have a television and video games.
In the past few weeks, progress has been made in the living conditions of Soldiers, Duncan said. "They are trying to make it better. I will give them that. It's going to take them a while to do that," he said.
Kiley testified that all but six Soldiers have been moved out of Building 18. It is planned for a complete renovation, he said. The command is overhauling its system to add case managers, improve communication and speed up the paperwork process, he said.
In addition, officials are reviewing both of the complex and lengthy medical and physical evaluation board processes.
Schoomaker was asked bluntly by a committee member, "How do we know it's going to change'"
"Because we're going to change it," Schoomaker said.
Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey resigned March 2 in light of the problems at the center. Weightman was relieved of command March 1.
(Fred W. Baker III writes for the American Forces Press Service.)