Officials cite progress on bureaucratic problems at Walter Reed

Pentagon officials cited progress Tuesday in overcoming bureaucratic and infrastructure problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other facilities, but agreed more needs to be done.

Despite claims of improvements made at a House hearing, Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee Chairman John Tierney, D-Mass., was not satisfied. He said Congress for years has heard recommendations to improve health care especially for disabled outpatient veterans "but the problems have not yet been fixed."

He said the subcommittee received Pentagon documents in February that "show a rash of complaints about the now-infamous Building 18, including mold, mouse droppings, roaches and flea bites so severe they required medical attention."

Yet, Tierney said "what's shocking" is those documents did not recount recent Walter Reed problems reported by the Washington Post.

Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, the acting Army surgeon general, and Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, commander of Walter Reed, told the panel in a joint presentation that "we have made a great deal of progress in the areas of leadership, infrastructure and process-related issues."

They said Building 18 no longer houses wounded soldiers and an evaluation is under way as to its future. Soldiers deserve the best but "in some areas, regrettably we have not lived up to that obligation," they said in a prepared joint statement.

The effort by medical personnel "to ensure that our soldiers survive combat and receive quality care has been undermined by an outdated and bureaucratic system that leaves recovering soldiers and their families frustrated and often angry," officials testified.

All witnesses agreed that medical treatment for wounded soldiers in Walter Reed has been superb but problems arise as soldiers make the transition to Veterans Affairs Department care or outpatient treatment.

Michael Dominguez, principal deputy undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, said new procedures are under way to streamline the cumbersome, several-layered system for evaluating a soldier's disability upon separation from the service. "The system must not be adversarial," he said.

Tierney said the disability review system should be overhauled. Reports that some veterans have not received adequate care "has been painful," Dominguez said. "Today, we are making dramatic improvements in our system, discarding outdated assumptions, removing bureaucratic roadblocks, improving information sharing an refocusing our attention to the one thing that matters most" -- the health of service people.

"We have done much but there is more to do," he added.

House Oversight and Government Reform National Security Subcommittee ranking member Christopher Shays, R-Conn., called for an ombudsman to assist wounded soldiers and their families. Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Lawrence Holland, a member of the independent commission that reviewed Walter Reed's problems, agreed that service people need an advocate "to help them work through the administrative minefield."

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