Short term, long term

March 23, 2007

In deciding in 2005 to close Walter Reed hospital and create a national military medical center at an expanded Bethesda naval hospital, the Base Realignment and Closure Commission chairman, Anthony J. Principi, said, "The kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them in harm's way, deserve to come back to 21st-century medical care." That sentiment is as true today as it was then and shouldn't be forgotten as officials redevelop the military medical system in the Washington area.

The commission had solid reasons for choosing consolidation over a refurbished Walter Reed. Reports about substandard conditions in some units have prompted calls to reinvest in the hospital and keep it open, but officials can't lose sight of the bigger picture - providing comprehensive care for the wounded, sick soldiers and retirees in the best facilities the country can offer.

For starters, the problems at Walter Reed must be fixed so wounded soldiers can recuperate with dignity and in surroundings befitting their service. And plans for a national military medical center at Bethesda, under the name Walter Reed National Medical Center, should proceed.

Lawmakers, veterans and families of service members were rightly outraged by reports of poor housing, unsanitary conditions and neglect at Walter Reed. The stories of wounded soldiers, many suffering from posttraumatic stress and unable to advocate for themselves, were disgraceful.

If the Army has been treating these wounded warriors on the cheap, that's shameful and inexcusable - regardless of plans to develop a 345-bed medical center at Bethesda and a 120-bed community hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., a move that would cost nearly $1 billion. Under the consolidation plan, Walter Reed is to continue serving patients until the new medical center opens in 2011.

Since the public outcry over conditions at Walter Reed, the Pentagon has moved to clean up areas of the hospital. Such maintenance must be ongoing and comprehensive. If the physical condition of patient areas proved embarrassing, the bureaucracy's unresponsiveness - some would say deliberate indifference - to soldiers' disability requests and aftercare needs was similarly shocking. That's a more systemic problem.

Meanwhile, retrofitting the medical military establishment in the Washington area is a work in progress, which can allow for changes and accommodations. But the immediate improvements at Walter Reed should neither compromise nor be compromised by the long-term needs of America's fighting forces as envisioned by the base realignment commission.

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