Army's top medical officer grilled by angry lawmakers

Surgeon General Kiley is taken to task over care of injured soldiers

March 08, 2007|By Adam Schreck | Adam Schreck,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- On frequent trips to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Rep. C.W. Bill Young said he and his wife found wounded soldiers who didn't have adequate clothes, even one doing his rehabilitation in the bloody boots he had on when he was injured.

One soldier, ashamed that his mattress was soaked with urine, tried to turn Young's wife away, the Florida Republican recalled yesterday.

Another with a serious brain injury fell out of bed and hit his head three times before someone was assigned to make sure it didn't happen again.

On the third day of hearings on Walter Reed, Young told Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army's top medical officer, and other brass that he repeatedly took his concerns to officials. He didn't raise them in public, he said, because he didn't want to undermine patients' confidence or the military.

But now he and other lawmakers want answers.

`Failing our soldiers'

And there's no one they hold more accountable than Kiley, who led the military's premier hospital from 2002 to 2004.

"While we have dedicated people, they're working in a system that is failing our soldiers," said Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, at the first of two hearings in which Kiley testified yesterday.

Calling Walter Reed "just the tip of the iceberg," Murray detailed fresh reports of poor treatment at a military hospital in Washington state.

"General Kiley, you're in charge of this system. I hold you accountable," she said. "I'm here today because I want answers."

Concerns about Walter Reed came to light after articles in The Washington Post that pointed to gaps in treatment and poor conditions in some facilities on the sprawling hospital campus, in particular an outpatient residential facility known as Building 18.

Kiley, who is the Army surgeon general, has told lawmakers that he was unaware of specific problems in Building 18. He said in response to questions yesterday that he had become aware of other problems at the hospital during and after his tenure there and had acted to remedy them.

But, he acknowledged, he had not done enough.

"I did fail," Kiley said. "I should have been more engaged."

In testimony this week, Kiley has sought to reassure lawmakers that physical problems such as mold growth and broken fixtures are being addressed. The last patient in Building 18 was scheduled to move out last night, he said.

Meanwhile, Kiley said, administrators are adding staff and reworking procedures to help ease the transition from hospital to outpatient care, where most of the problems have been.

The scandal has cost two high-ranking officials their jobs - the Army secretary and the hospital commander. Some lawmakers questioned Kiley's leadership style yesterday and asked whether he, too, should be relieved of his command.

At the White House, former Sen. Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala, who were appointed Tuesday to lead a commission to study military and veteran medical care, met with President Bush.

"He made it very clear that if one soldier doesn't get high-quality treatment and isn't transitioned back into civilian life or back into the military, that's unacceptable," Shalala said, adding that she could sense the president's "anger and his anxiousness that we move as quickly as possible."

Dole said the president planned to play an active role in the commission's work.

Serious matters

After the meeting, Bush said, "Any report of medical neglect will be taken seriously by this administration [and], I'm confident, by the Congress, and we will address problems quickly."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, expressed support yesterday for the commission. But they called on Bush to consult Congress on the committee's makeup and urged the president to include troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and their family members on the commission.

Meanwhile, the investigation on Capitol Hill will continue.

As he closed a House hearing at which Kiley faced heated questioning, Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, assured fellow lawmakers, "This is not the end of the story."

Adam Schreck writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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