Gates sets up oversight for Walter Reed

May 03, 2007|By Julian E. Barnes

WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday that he has asked the department's top military and civilian leaders to begin meeting weekly to carry out recommendations of review groups that have examined failures at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Gates said his deputy, Gordon England, will lead a strategy and oversight group consisting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and health officials to see that reforms proposed by the Pentagon's Independent Review Group, a commission appointed by President Bush and other task forces are put into effect.

Gates vowed that the Defense Department would ensure that injured service members have the best care possible.

"That is what we will give them," Gates said. "Apart from the war itself, this department and I have no higher priority."

On April 11, the Independent Review Group, chaired by two former Army secretaries, Togo West and John O. Marsh Jr., released a lengthy list of reforms needed to improve care at Walter Reed.

The review group called for a new center to study and treat brain injuries, an overhaul of the disabilities claims process and the assignment of a single primary physician to every wounded soldier. The report said that Walter Reed was poorly equipped to handle the large influx of wounded from Iraq and Afghanistan and that the Defense Department worsened the problems by trying to hold down costs at the hospital.

In February, a series of stories in The Washington Post highlighted flaws in the out-patient care at Walter Reed, including delays and neglect of wounded soldiers who were housed in shoddy quarters.

The report said that the problems occurred at Walter Reed because of lapses in leadership and because the facility was neglected after it was slated for closure by the Pentagon.

Some in Congress have called for the Pentagon to reverse its 2005 decision to close Walter Reed. But Gates said yesterday that he favors investment in new hospitals at Bethesda Naval Medical Center in Maryland and Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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