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House committee chairman fears Walter Reed not isolated case

WASHINGTON — Substandard living conditions found at the Army’s flagship veterans hospital likely exist throughout the military health care system, the head of a House panel investigating Walter Reed Army Medical Center said Monday.
    ‘‘We need a sustained focus here, and much more needs to be done,’’ Rep. John Tierney said of a scandal enveloping Walter Reed. Charges of bureaucratic delays and poor treatment there have produced calls in Congress for quick reform.
    Tierney said he is afraid ‘‘these problems go well beyond the walls of Walter Reed,’’ adding that ‘‘as we send more and more troops into Iraq and Afghanistan, these problems are only going to get worse, not better.’’
    A House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee hearing Monday at the hospital brought a wide range of apologies from top-level Army officers and the Army’s No. 2 civilian. ‘‘We have let some soldiers down,’’ said Peter Geren, the undersecretary of the Army.
    Tierney, D-Mass., chairman of the panel, questioned whether problems at the facility are ‘‘just another horrific consequence’’ of inadequate planning that went into war in Iraq; a problem created by contracting out work there to private business, or some other cause.
    ‘‘This is absolutely the wrong way to treat our troops, and serious reforms need to happen... immediately,’’ he said.
    Geren, who will become acting Army secretary later this week, told the panel that the revelations of poor conditions at Walter Reed had hurt the Army. Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign last week and he leaves his post on Friday.
    Two former commanders at the facility said they accepted responsibility for the failures.
    Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, head of Walter Reed from August until he was fired last week said: ‘‘You can’t fail one of these soldiers ... not one. And we did.’’
    Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, Army surgeon general and head of Walter Reed until 2004, apologized for what he called housing conditions that did ‘‘not meet our standards.’’ He said renovations were under way.
    He also said a team had been sent to some 11 other installations around the country to make sure there are not similar housing problems.
    Regarding bureaucratic delays, Kiley said the system for outpatient care is ‘‘complex, confusing and frustrating’’ and that more doctors, nurses and other staff are being brought in to lower the case load and so speed the process.
    Lawmakers listened closely as several patients came to the hearing with stories of lax or poor treatment at Walter Reed:
    Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon, who lost his left eye and suffered traumatic brain injuries from a rifle wound, said that after he was discharged from Walter Reed, he was given a map of the grounds and eventually found his way to outpatient quarters by wandering around and asking for directions.
    Then, he says, he ‘‘sat in my room for a couple of weeks wondering when someone would contact’’ him about continuing treatment.
    ‘‘My biggest concern is having young men and women who have had their lives shattered in service to their country ... get taken care of,’’ Shannon said.
    Annette McLeod told the committee that her husband, Cpl. Wendell McLeod, was originally sent to the wrong hospital after he was hit in the head with a steel door in Iraq and also suffered a head injury.
    Once at Walter Reed, she said, he suffered delays in getting outpatient tests and treatment.
    ‘‘My life was ripped apart the day that my husband was injured,’’ she told the panel tearfully. The experience at Walter Reed made it ‘‘worse than anything I’ve had to sacrifice in my life.’’
    Addressing war veterans on Monday, Vice President Dick Cheney promised that the problems at Walter Reed will be fixed.
    ‘‘There will be no excuses — only action,’’ Cheney told a gathering of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. ‘‘And the federal bureaucracy will not slow that action down.’’
    Weightman said several systems set up to monitor patient complaints and opinions had failed to uncover the problems. An anonymous survey at the end of January, for instance, showed patient satisfaction with case workers and physicians at 90 percent, he said.
    ‘‘Almost none of these issues were raised,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s obviously a failure ... get the feedback we need.’’
    The controversy started last month with a series of stories in The Washington Post, but lawmakers said reports of the failures go back several years.
    Rep. Henry A. Waxman, D-Calif., said that in addition to several government audits, there was a February 2005 Salon magazine story on poor conditions at the hospital’s psychiatric ward; a 2006 report on problems screening people with brain injuries and a 2005 think tank report criticizing the complex disability program.
    ’My question is: Where have you been?’’ Tierney asked, when the third panel of witnesses took their seats at the witness table. They were Geren, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Schoomaker, and his vice chief, Gen. Richard Cody.
    ‘‘We’ve got all these reports with all these alarm bells going off ... and the information doesn’t seem to get up the line of command,’’ said Waxman.
    In a letter Sunday to Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., asked for an independent commission, possibly headed by former Secretary of State Colin Powell, to investigate all post-combat medical facilities and recommend changes. President Bush last week had ordered a comprehensive review of conditions.

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