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Walter Reed in Spotlight

Democrats Focus on Oversight, Promise Changes

Democrats launched their first major investigation of the 110th Congress on Monday with hearings on conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and suggested that weak Republican oversight contributed to the problems experienced by wounded soldiers there.

As the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee convened a hearing at Walter Reed, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement proclaiming the beginning of “long overdue oversight of the Bush administration.”

Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami said: “The American people spoke clearly in the November elections that they wanted accountability and oversight. Under the Republican Congress it has been almost nonexistent, and you can certainly see that with what occurred at Walter Reed.”

Rep. John Tierney (D-Mass.), chairman of the subcommittee on national security and foreign affairs, which hosted the hearing, said in an interview afterward that “we should have known all this before. … There just hasn’t been enough oversight.” Tierney said he anticipates holding another hearing on the matter within the next 45 days and promised “we are going to stay on this thing until we get it fixed.”

Republicans rejected the notion that they had failed to investigate conditions at Walter Reed, and cited a range of hearings and oversight activities on military health care that preceded the Democratic majority.

The Walter Reed hearing Monday was spawned by a series of published reports depicting wounded soldiers living in squalid conditions in a ramshackle dormitory.

But mice and mold were not the leading issues for the hearing. Instead lawmakers focused on the Byzantine process a wounded soldier must endure as the military attempts to establish how badly wounded the soldier is, and how his or her disability should be classified. This process has created a backlog that strains the medical center’s capacity to respond to its wounded, officials said.

Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the army’s surgeon general, testified Monday that the Walter Reed outpatient population has swelled during the Iraq War, and the medical review process that is required before a patient can leave the facility may take a year or longer. “Beginning in 2003, the population of active and reserve component soldiers assigned to [medical holding units on the campus] increased from 100-120 before the war, to a high of 874 in the summer of 2005,” Kiley said.

Families have no reliable guide through the process and military decisions on physical disabilities may be confusing and contradictory, particularly since the Department of Veterans Affairs frequently comes to a different disability determination than the Defense Department did using the same ranking systems and in reference to the same wounds.

Republicans point out that they have charted many of these problems in oversight hearings in recent years. For instance, in February 2005 the Government Reform Committee under the gavel of then-Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) held a hearing on the convoluted system of designating disabilities. Davis pointed out at the time that “the Army lacks compassionate, customer friendly service,” and said in his opening statement for that hearing, “I’m appalled that these men and women not only have had to face recovery from their war wounds, but are forced to navigate a confusing and seemingly uncaring system of benefits.”

Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) wrote Monday in an e-mail that prior to the Democratic takeover, “The Committee handled 78 individual cases, recognized flaws in the system and were putting pressure on the Army to fix them. Army officials testified they were aware of the problems and were making progress. When I visited Walter Reed, I met with the wounded soldiers who were not yet in the outpatient labyrinth.”

Tierney said many Members of Congress had probably dealt with individual cases of constituents seeking relief from the military bureaucracy, but had not realized that was part of a larger institutional problem. “We’ve all heard different stories,” he said. “When you have a complaint, you get it resolved, you do your constituent service and don’t realize it may be part of something broader.”

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