Panel Calls for Closing Walter Reed Sooner

Walter Reed Army Medical Center has been strained by U.S. casualties from more than five years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Walter Reed Army Medical Center has been strained by U.S. casualties from more than five years of combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. (2005 Photo By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Steve Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 12, 2007

A top-level Pentagon review panel has concluded that Walter Reed Army Medical Center should be closed as soon as possible, following revelations of poor care that the panel blamed on a "perfect storm" of failed leadership, flawed policies and overwhelming casualties.

In a preliminary report released yesterday, the panel appointed by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates recommended accelerating the closure of the Northwest Washington hospital but improving conditions there in the meantime. Under defense realignment decisions made two years ago, the hospital's facilities were scheduled to move to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda by 2011.

A faster move could mean speeding up or waiving an environmental review and releasing money to break ground on a $2 billion expansion plan at Bethesda, according to the draft report from the Independent Review Group. Construction of a larger Army hospital at Fort Belvoir in Northern Virginia also should be expedited, the report said.

The Navy is preparing a draft environmental study for the Bethesda plan, which would include building a large addition on the north side of the hospital building and tower.

"It needs to be built, and it needs to be built as quickly as possible," said review panel member John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz, a physician and former Republican member of Congress from Michigan. "The environmental impact study should be waived."

Such a move by the defense secretary could inflame neighbors of the sprawling campus along Wisconsin Avenue, who are counting on an environmental review to assess the effects of added traffic. And it would run counter to efforts in Congress, led by Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), to stave off Walter Reed's closure.

Even as they urged a speedy shutdown, members of the Pentagon group called for the immediate investment of hundreds of millions of dollars at Walter Reed for short-term infrastructure improvements and to address shortages of nurses and other medical personnel.

"Keep Walter Reed going fully funded -- no dying on the vine -- right up to the moment they are ready to turn the key" at Bethesda, said co-chairman John O. Marsh Jr., secretary of the Army under President Ronald Reagan.

The nine-member review board was established by Gates after The Washington Post reported in February about decrepit conditions at some Walter Reed facilities and shoddy outpatient treatment of wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan. The revelations led to the abrupt resignations of Army Secretary Francis Harvey and top Army Medical Corps officers.

Togo D. West, secretary of the Army under President Bill Clinton and co-chairman of the review panel, lambasted Walter Reed during a public meeting yesterday, saying that though the primary medical care was generally first-rate, patients perceived an "almost palpable disdain" among the staff for the need to provide support during outpatient treatment.

West said there had been a "virtually incomprehensible" failure to properly maintain facilities and infrastructure at Walter Reed.

"Leadership at Walter Reed should have been aware of poor living conditions and administrative hurdles, and failed to place proper priority on solutions," the draft report said.

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