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Jun-27-2007 14:10printcomments

Independent Review Group: Overhauling VA healthcare a 'Mammoth' Task

The panel presented its findings in a 129-page report delivered to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.

Walter Reed Medical Center
Walter Reed Medical Center

(SALEM, Ore.) - Walter Reed Hospital made big news this year when numerous shortfalls in patient care were exposed by a reporter. Now an independent review group says those problems highlight a complex situation that Defense Department can't solve alone.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates set out to establish the review group after the U.S. government's problems were "outed" at Walter Reed. He says the group's job is to identify rehabilitative care shortfalls and administrative snafus at Walter Reed and the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and to recommend needed improvements.

It seems fair to point out the fact that these problems had all been in existence right under the government's nose, and to remember that this is a response to a problem that only the media brought forward, as the families of thousands of vets took no action to improve conditions prior to the story's exposure.

The panel presented its findings in a 129-page report delivered to Gates on April 19th.

Former Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr., one of the panel's co-chairs, told the military personnel subcommittee he believes the review panel's work involving matters at Walter Reed and Bethesda encompassed "just a piece of the pie" regarding military health care.

"I was of the view then, and am of the view now, that some of the things that we're discussing that apply to Walter Reed apply to other military hospitals in the United States," Marsh said.

Critics like Marsh say that once again, American contractors became involved and the process went south.

"The other thing that we realize (is that) we're dealing here with some mammoth bureaucracies," Marsh continued. "We cannot solve this solely in the Department of Defense."

The reason for many of the problems as it turns out, is that a number of Walter Reed military and civilian employees had been replaced with contractors in recent years, as part of an effort to outsource many federal jobs.

This outsourcing program is officially known within the federal government as the A-76 process, it contributed to staffing shortages and personnel turbulence at the hospital, Marsh pointed out.

"If you're getting into A-76, you're getting into a whole different field; you're getting into OMB," Marsh said, adding that addressing that issue "is a mammoth sort of task that you're looking at."

Marsh also invited subcommittee members to inquire about the status of military hospitals "at Fort Bragg, S.C., Fort Gordon, Ga., and at other places."

Agencies intend to open almost 18,000 federal jobs to contractor competition for possible outsourcing this year, according to a new Office of Management and Budget report.

Veterans all over the nation talk about how poor care often is in VA facilities. The above mentioned facilities may be among the nation's worst, while facilities in strong GOP retirement areas such as Arizona often see an improved rate of care according to some veterans.

The panel's other co-chair is former Army Secretary Togo West Jr., who says much more work needs to be done, especially with issues related to the treatment and long-term care for servicemembers who've experienced traumatic brain injury or developed post traumatic stress disorder.

Those issues, as well as the coming Base Realignment and Closure Act-mandated move of Walter Reed's assets to Bethesda and physical disability evaluation processes are the "big issues that need our attention right now," West said.

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Sean Flynn was a photojournalist in Vietnam, taken captive in 1970 in Cambodia and never seen again.


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