VA Orders Review Of Its Medical Care System

Tuesday, March 13th 2007, 5:43 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson ordered a broad review of the VA medical system to determine whether the shoddy conditions found at Walter Reed Army Medical Center exist among the VA's 1,400 hospitals and clinics.

Nicholson's decision was disclosed Monday as the Army's surgeon general was forced into retirement over poor treatment of the war-wounded at Walter Reed, the Army's flagship hospital and one of the nation's premier facilities for treating veterans back from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, an Army inspector general's report blamed poor training and conflicting policies among the Army and the Veterans Affairs and Defense departments for problems in how injured soldiers are evaluated for their return to military service or retirement.

Nicholson wrote in an internal memorandum to the VA's medical center directors that ``recent events'' compelled him to redouble efforts to improve the physical environment at VA outpatient center and medical facilities.

``I am directing you hereby to conduct and supervise a full and immediate review of your facility's environments of care,'' Nicholson wrote on March 7. The memo asked for a full report by March 14.

Nicholson's moves come in the wake of disclosures of roach-infested conditions and inadequate outpatient care at Walter Reed. It also comes as Democrats newly in charge of Congress question whether Nicholson, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is up to the job of revitalizing a veterans care system beset with bureaucratic delays and poor coordination with the Pentagon.

Walter Reed is a military hospital run by the Defense Department. But critics have long said problems of military care extend to the VA's vast network, which provides supplemental health care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans.

In the Army inspector general's report, investigators said the number of medical board cases has nearly doubled since the Iraq war began, from more than 6,500 in 2002 to 11,000 in 2006. The increase has caused the medical evaluations to take longer than allowed, and hurt the Army's ability to meet soldiers' needs, the inspector general said.

The report also found some soldiers do not return for required exams, and suggested the Army be more strict in suspending retirement pay or benefits to those who don't show up for the physicals.

Since last month's report by The Washington Post on conditions at Walter Reed, three high-level Pentagon officials have been forced to step down over poor treatment there.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign and Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who was in charge of Walter Reed since August 2006, was ousted. On Monday, the Army said its surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who headed Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, was being forced to resign.

Kiley's removal underscored how the controversy, which began with reports of dilapidated outpatient housing and a nightmarish bureaucracy at Walter Reed, which Kiley head from 2002-2004, has snowballed into a far broader problem for the Bush administration.

Over the weekend, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a Senate Armed Services Committee member, said problems in veterans care are ``going to take a lot more than a coat of paint on the walls.''

``This is somebody who has spent a whole lot of the last few years defending everything about the White House,'' she said on CBS' ``Face the Nation,'' referring to Nicholson. ``It's time we put somebody in charge of the Veterans Administration whose first priority are the veterans and not the politics surrounding the agency.''

VA spokesman Matt Burns said Nicholson, a 30-year veteran, is committed to serving veterans.

In the last week, Nicholson has hired more personnel to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder and expedited claims for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also is launching an ``aggressive hiring program'' to increase staffing by over 500 benefits employees by June, according to a letter Nicholson submitted to Congress.

On Monday, Nicholson paid a surprise visit to the VA medical center in Richmond, Va., as part of the department's ongoing efforts to ``make sure veterans are receiving access to the best possible care and environment.''