Defense Secretary Gates announces creation of independent panel to study military health care conditions

Department of Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Friday announced the creation of an independent panel to examine outpatient conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals, the Los Angeles Times reports (Barnes, Los Angeles Times, 2/24).

The Washington Post this month published a two-part series that examined conditions at the military hospital. One article profiled the state of Building 18, which has mold, cockroaches and stained carpets, among other issues. The series also examined the process by which injured soldiers seek disability compensation (Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report, 2/22). Gates said he was "grateful to reporters for bringing this to our attention but thoroughly disappointed we did not identify it ourselves." The eight-member panel will examine all rehabilitative care and administrative procedures at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Panel members will have "free and unrestricted access" to visit all medical facilities and interview personnel, Gates said. The panel will be co-chaired by Togo West, former Veterans Affairs secretary and secretary of the Army during the Clinton administration, and John Marsh, former secretary of the Army under President Reagan and a former Virginia congressman. The panel also will include two former members of Congress, three retired senior military officers and a retired command sergeant major (Vogel, Washington Post, 2/24). The panel's report is due within 45 days, Gates said (AP/Boston Herald, 2/24). Gates said that some personnel directly involved with problems at Walter Reed have been "relieved" of their duties. The Times reports that according to Army officials, "no officers had been removed from command positions, but ... there had been administrative reassignments of some midlevel officials at the hospital" (Los Angeles Times, 2/24).

Further Actions
The Senate Armed Services Committee has scheduled hearings on Walter Reed for March 6, according to a spokesperson for panel Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.). Ranking member John Warner (R-Va.) toured Walter Reed on Friday (Washington Post, 2/24). Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) next week plan to introduce a bill to increase oversight at Walter Reed, among other issues, according to a Democratic congressional staffer (Los Angeles Times, 2/24). Gates on Friday also met with President Bush to brief him on actions taken to address problems at Walter Reed. He said that the president is, "understandably, concerned" (Washington Post, 2/24).

Mental Health Needs Not Met, Report Finds
In related news, a report released by a task force of the American Psychological Association on Sunday found that the U.S. military is not fully addressing the mental health needs of returning veterans, USA Today reports. The study, led by Ron Palomares, found that the Pentagon did not establish high-quality mental health programs across the military. The report also noted a 22% decline in the number of uniformed clinical psychologists in the military and a 40% vacancy rate among licensed clinical psychologist positions in the Army and Navy. In addition, the study noted the "absence of systematic research" on the impact of war on military spouses and children, which the report labeled as "striking" (Zoroya, USA Today, 2/26). The report found that three out of 10 soldiers qualified as having a mental disorder and that less than half of those who met the criteria sought help, sometimes because of stigma associated with mental health problems and sometimes because assistance was not available. Veterans for America President Bobby Muller said, "The system as it exists today ignores the readjustment needs specific to Iraq and Afghanistan service members. We have to stop throwing money at a problem that requires a complete overhaul. The system is broken." Pentagon spokesperson Cynthia Smith said, "For the past four years," DOD "has been aggressively reaching out to support our military personnel before and after deployments. This is unprecedented" (Borenstein, AP/Long Island Newsday, 2/25). Smith added, "No military in the history of the world has done more to identify, evaluate, prevent and treat the mental health needs and concerns of its personnel than the military services of the United States" (USA Today, 2/26).

Post Editorial
DOD "seems to be responding quickly to many of the problems" found at Walter Reed, but "the most disturbing problem uncovered in the Post's series is getting the least public acknowledgment from generals and journalists alike," a Washington Post editorial states. According to the Post, veterans' difficulty in receiving "fair disability compensation" has yet to be addressed. "There's no excuse for the Army to try so hard to deny disability compensation to wounded soldiers," the editorial states, adding, "[a]fter sacrificing their health, they should get the benefit of the doubt in such decisions. After all, improperly denying compensation can bankrupt soldiers and their families for years" (Washington Post, 2/24).

Broadcast Coverage
NPR's "All Things Considered" on Friday reported on Gates' announcement. The segment includes comments from Gates, Col. Douglas McGregor and Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley of the U.S. Army Medical Command (Raz, "All Things Considered," NPR, 2/23). Audio of the segment is available online. NPR's "Day To Day" on Friday featured a discussion with NPR reporter Guy Raz on the situation at Walter Reed (Raz, "Day To Day," NPR, 2/23). Audio of the segment is available online.


Kaiser Health NewsThis article was reprinted from khn.org with permission from the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Kaiser Health News, an editorially independent news service, is a program of the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan health care policy research organization unaffiliated with Kaiser Permanente.

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