BRAC move seen at risk

Walter Reed controversy might threaten shift of jobs to Bethesda site

March 20, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- Plans to expand the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda - part of a military realignment plan expected to bring thousands of jobs to Maryland - might be in jeopardy as a result of the controversy over medical care at the Walter Reed Army hospital, according to members of the state's congressional delegation.

The House of Representatives is expected to consider a measure this week that would keep Walter Reed Army Medical Center open. If approved, it could delay or cancel plans to move Walter Reed's existing operations, and nearly 1,900 workers, from the District of Columbia to Maryland.

The $2 billion expansion of the Bethesda Naval Medical Center is a key element of the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) process, which is expected to bring 40,000 to 60,000 new jobs to Maryland over the next five years.

A proposal to block the Bush administration from closing Walter Reed has been written into a $124 billion spending measure expected to be taken up Thursday by the House.

"Whether or not [expansion at Bethesda] is going to happen down the road, right now the best thing that we can say is that it's on hold until we stabilize the situation with the care of the troops," said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, who voted for the measure to keep Walter Reed open at a House Appropriations Committee meeting last week.

The proposal to block the closing of Walter Reed follows revelations of poor conditions at the medical center, a premier Army hospital for wounded soldiers returning from Iraq. Military officials have blamed the problems in part on a reluctance to invest in the facility after it was slated to be closed in 2011.

Ruppersberger said backers of the measure were "attempting to get the attention of the Department of Defense."

"The whole BRAC process is for efficiencies and to hopefully come into the new age as far as modern technology," the Baltimore County Democrat said. "But as it turned out, it didn't work, and we don't want any excuse. Our highest priority is to take care of those men and women who have come back from Iraq."

Merger decision

The base-closure commission voted in 2005 to merge the existing hospitals at Walter Reed and Bethesda into a new, 340-bed facility at Bethesda. It would be called Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, in honor of the storied Army hospital.

Congress has never reversed a decision of a base-closure commission. The process was set up to minimize political pressure on basing decisions.

The Bush administration is cool to the idea of revisiting the plan to close Walter Reed.

"We respect the BRAC process, and it is a rational process," said deputy White House press secretary Tony Fratto, adding that the administration is waiting for recommendations from a president's commission and other panels examining veterans' care before endorsing an alternative.

One former BRAC participant said a vote to keep Walter Reed open would undermine the entire process.

"The whole reason that Congress created the BRAC law and made an unprecedented grant of its own authority to an independent commission was to avoid exactly that problem - that no matter what base the administration tried to close, there were congressmen who wanted to keep it open," said Jeremiah Gertler, a senior analyst for the 1995 BRAC Commission.

"If there were an attempt to keep Walter Reed open, I suspect that other members would try the same tack with their bases," Gertler said.

The reversal is far from certain, at least as part of the push this month to approve emergency spending for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with consensus on the proposal growing, it appears likely to resurface.

"I am very concerned about the timing of a Walter Reed closure, given the current strain on patient care for our soldiers," Democratic Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski said yesterday through a spokeswoman.

Undecided

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, the Montgomery County Democrat whose district includes Bethesda, said he had not determined the best course of action regarding the move.

"I think this requires an overall assessment of what is best for our wounded soldiers at Walter Reed and an assessment of what makes sense in the future," Van Hollen said.

"Obviously, the BRAC commission believed that it was in the interests of the military health care system to consolidate their operations at Bethesda. But there may be a short-term desire to delay the move, given the fact that you have lots of wounded soldiers there now," he said.

Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton had submitted legislation to keep Walter Reed open before the idea was written into the emergency spending measure.

The D.C. Democrat claimed the proposal would have "no impact" on Bethesda - because the move wasn't going to happen anyway.

"From the day Walter Reed made the BRAC list, there was absolutely no chance that Congress would come up with two or three billion in the middle of a war to spend on a new hospital," she said.

Army `trapped'

Gertler, the former BRAC analyst, questioned whether the measure could be obeyed.

"The problem is that the Army is getting trapped between the irresistible force and the immovable object," he said.

"There is a law on the books now that says Walter Reed must be closed," he said. "If the appropriators pass a law saying that the Army may not spend any money to close Walter Reed, then the Army is stuck trying to decide which law it's going to obey."

The appropriate way to reverse the closure, Gertler said, would be to repeal the law.

In Bethesda, preparations for the expansion continue. Officials at the National Naval Medical Center are working now on an environmental impact statement, a draft of which is to be released in June.

"We have heard of no changes in terms of BRAC and executing BRAC here," spokesman Brian Badura said. "Until we get a change ... in terms of executing the BRAC law, we will proceed as we've been directed in the past."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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