By Steve Vogel and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 8, 2007
The co-chairman of an independent panel investigating problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center said yesterday that the hospital may lack adequate funding and staff for rehabilitative services.
"That's my first impression, that there are personnel shortages and funding shortages," said John O. "Jack" Marsh Jr., a former Army secretary and congressman from Virginia whom Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates named to help lead a review group examining care and administrative procedures at the hospital.
In a telephone interview, Marsh and his co-chairman, Togo West, cautioned that they have not reached any conclusions about the causes of or remedies for the problems. "We want to be careful about judging too soon," said West, who was secretary of veterans affairs and secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration.
The Army until now has been reluctant to say that it needs more money. Commanders said at a House hearing Monday that Walter Reed and the Army Medical Command have been given all the resources needed -- an assertion that Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) called "dishonest."
But at a hearing yesterday before the Senate Appropriations Committee, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's surgeon general, testified that Pentagon budget officials in recent years have required military medical services to cut costs by hundreds of millions of dollars. "This year, it's $80 million in my core budget. Next year, it's on the order of $142 million," Kiley said. "I can't find $142 million in efficiencies."
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said that the Pentagon's imposed cuts reach nearly $500 million this year and nearly $800 million next year for all branches of the armed forces. "It is shocking to see, at a time when the military medical facilities need more money, that we have budget people directing reductions," he said. "I'm really, really alarmed at that."
In the interview yesterday, Marsh said his first impression was that Walter Reed did not have enough workers for rehabilitative services. "I think they're going to have to have more people," he said.
Marsh and West said that the eight-member Pentagon review group will hold public meetings next week at Walter Reed and at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, which Gates directed them to include in the investigation.
They said that they are holding the open meetings to avoid "preselected witnesses" chosen by the military. The group also plans to set up a hotline to which problems can be reported.
West said that the Pentagon review group would not conflict with a separate White House commission that will examine the care that wounded U.S. troops receive after they return from the battlefield. President Bush on Tuesday named former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Donna E. Shalala, former health and human services secretary, to co-chair the bipartisan panel.
Democratic congressional leaders sent a letter to Bush yesterday calling on him to include service members and their relatives on the White House commission. The letter, signed by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), urged Bush to consult with both Democrats and Republicans in selecting the rest of the panel members.
Shalala told reporters after she and Dole met with the president yesterday that Bush had given them "a broad mandate" to examine the entire military medical system. "You could sense his anger and his anxiousness that we move as quickly as possible," she said.
Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon yesterday, Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that he was surprised by the revelations about Walter Reed. "I was sick from the standpoint of not providing to our wounded troops the end-to-end care that they deserve," he said.
Also yesterday, Kiley and Gen. Peter Schoomaker, the Army's chief of staff, appeared before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee. Kiley again faced tough questioning and responded that he shares the blame: "I have a responsibility to fix this, and I will."
At yesterday's Senate hearing, officials also pointed to a serious shortage of military nurses. The Army, Navy and Air Force each has a 10 percent shortage of nurses, with shortages reaching nearly 40 percent in some critical specialties, Nurse Corps leaders testified.
Army nurses are leaving the force at double the average attrition rate for Army officers, said Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, chief of the Army Nurse Corps. "The future of the Army Nurse Corps is in jeopardy," she said.
Staff writer Josh White contributed to this report.