Legislation Would Repeal Walter Reed Closure

By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Revelations of shoddy facilities and bureaucratic nightmares at Walter Reed Army Medical Center have tarnished the reputation of the renowned military hospital. But they may also have given the 98-year-old facility a second life.

The furor surrounding the treatment of wounded soldiers has prompted some lawmakers, veterans and Army officials to ask: Why is the Defense Department closing Walter Reed -- where more than 6,000 soldiers injured in Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated since 2002 -- in the middle of a war with mounting casualties?

Congress approved and President Bush signed into law the recommendation of the federal Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission in 2005 that Walter Reed be closed and consolidated with the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, where a $2 billion expansion is being planned.

The debate has been fueled by testimony from Army officials that the problems in outpatient care have been exacerbated, in part, by the planned closure in 2011. Commanders said this has created "instability" at the hospital and made it difficult to keep a good work force, which is two-thirds civilian.

"The BRAC pressure is clear," agreed Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). "What it does is send the signal to everybody: Go look for another job because we think it's going to close down." Norton said she will introduce legislation seeking to repeal the planned closure of Walter Reed.

The issue also arose at a hearing yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee. "I have concerns, as we go through this long war, about taking down capacity that may be needed," testified Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff.

"I think we should take a second look at that decision about Walter Reed," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) responded.

Appearing on the same panel, William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, defended the plan to close the Army hospital, arguing that the problems there were not "in any way related" to the decision.

The BRAC commission recommendation to close Walter Reed was part of a package of base closings nationwide that was adopted by Congress. New legislation would be required to overturn the decision, an unprecedented move that could reopen debate over recommendations to close other bases.

Some area lawmakers say the climate of national outrage surrounding the disclosures at Walter Reed might persuade Congress to overturn or at least delay the closure.

"You can always overturn the law," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.). "I think on this BRAC in particular, you might see some things. If you're Eleanor, you've got to seize the moment."

"This is something we should be looking at, and looking at right away," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who represents Bethesda in Congress, said yesterday. "I think everyone would agree that the priority has to be that the soldiers at Walter Reed get the best possible care."

But Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the ranking minority member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned during yesterday's hearing that it would be expensive to reverse the decision. He urged that the committee instead expedite spending on the planned expansion at Bethesda and a new regional Army hospital at Fort Belvoir.

The BRAC process, establishing independent commissions to decide what military bases should be closed to save money, was created by Congress to prevent political interference. Reversing the Walter Reed decision would be complex and unprecedented.

"Congress would have to invalidate the existing regulation and create a whole new law, and once they did that, there would be enormous pressure to include other facilities," said Jeremiah Gertler, a senior analyst for the 1995 BRAC commission.

In reaching the decision to close Walter Reed, the 2005 commission concluded that it was wasteful to operate two major medical centers less than 10 miles apart. The planned consolidation of the Army and Navy facilities into the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center is aimed at creating what would perhaps be the nation's premier military facility for treating wounded troops, research and education.

The Navy is moving forward with preliminary plans to expand the Bethesda campus, including the construction of a new hospital building adjacent to the existing facility.

A draft environmental impact study is to be completed in June. Last month, the Navy awarded an $8 million contract to a Virginia-based joint venture firm for architectural and engineering services.

"We have been given a mandate to move forward with the BRAC and we're doing that, because there has been no change that we know of," medical center spokesman Brian Badura said yesterday.

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