Veterans Sue Over Care At D.C. Home

"These cuts are affecting our health," said Homer Rutherford, one of the veterans bringing suit. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A group of veterans living at the U.S. Armed Forces Retirement Home filed a class-action suit yesterday on behalf of all its residents, claiming that drastic budget cuts by the Defense Department have resulted in substandard medical care.

The suit alleges that the more than 1,000 veterans living at the Northwest Washington facility can no longer get prescriptions and regular doctor checkups at the home because of service cuts in the two years since the Defense Department installed new management.

The plaintiffs said the austerity measures have put their health in danger and left them with no choice but to sue Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and the home's chief operating officer, Timothy Cox.

They said the cuts violate a federal law requiring the home to provide a minimum standard of health care on the campus off North Capitol Street that has been a veterans' sanctuary since 1851. It was formerly known as the U.S. Soldiers' and Airmen's Home.

According to the suit, an on-site pharmacy and a medical treatment room have been closed; annual health exams have been drastically curtailed; and residents with emergency health problems are told to call 911, causing some of them to resort to taking a taxi to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to avoid paying for an ambulance or medical care at a civilian hospital.

Because of the cuts, the number of deaths at the home has increased from 59 in 2000 to 131 in 2003, the suit contends.

Homer Rutherford, a retired Air Force medical evacuation technician and one of the 16 residents who filed the suit, said he had a respiratory infection in December that got much worse. When he saw a doctor, she told him to start taking antibiotics immediately -- as well as oxygen -- but left it to him to pick up the prescription, he said. The home no longer provided transportation to Walter Reed's pharmacy, and Rutherford said he "could barely walk."

"These cuts are affecting our health," said Rutherford. "If I could sit with Secretary Rumsfeld or Senator Warner, I would tell them: 'This isn't right. Please restore some of these services, so we know somebody cares about us, and we could live our final years in peace.' " He was referring to Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

The home's chief financial officer, Steve McManus, disputed many of the suit's claims and questioned whether most residents share its concerns. He said the home's management has streamlined health care services, eliminating unnecessary physician assistants and layers of staff so that residents can see doctors directly in an emergency.

He said he believes that some residents may be confused because the facility's primary care services are in flux and spread throughout the campus while the home renovates a building to open a preventive care clinic in July.

"We're staffed with the right number of doctors for our people," McManus said. "I really do believe when they see the wellness clinic aligned in one area, they'll recognize the positive changes. It'll be a couple more months."

A Pentagon spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Ellen Krenke, said Rumsfeld's office "cannot comment on pending litigation."

The 276-acre campus has struggled in the past decade to avoid bankruptcy. Its operations have been financed by a trust fund that relies on 50-cent-a-week paycheck deductions from all enlisted military personnel. But with rising expenses and the ranks of the armed forces falling in the 1990s from 2.1 million people to 1.4 million, the home began racking up deficits.

In 2002, the Defense Department hired Cox to cut costs at the District home and a similar home for veterans in Gulfport, Miss. In late 2003, Cox's team cut 65 positions at the D.C. home, about 10 percent of its staff, and contracted out security, food service and maintenance. The number of staff doctors dropped from nine to three.

Rutherford lauded Cox for eliminating long-standing waste at the home. "There was featherbedding," he said. "People had been here 20 and 30 years, came to work, and what they did nobody knew. He did an excellent job weeding these people out. But he got a little overzealous. He started cutting into the medical."

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