Under criticism for poor treatment of injured soldiers, the Pentagon announced new measures Tuesday to provide more health screenings, improve its record-keeping system and simplify an unwieldy disability claims system.
Testifying before a House panel, Michael Dominguez, principal deputy under secretary of Defense, and Major Gen. Gale Pollock, the Army’s acting surgeon general, acknowledged a need for major changes in the outpatient treatment of wounded soldiers and veterans.
They expressed confidence in a new leadership team overseeing Walter Reed Army Medical Center following disclosures of shoddy treatment in February and urged lawmakers to be patient.
“We believe we have the right people and the right mechanisms in place to make sure that all soldiers who are in a transitional status — our warriors in transition — are managed with care and compassion, and that they and their families are receiving the care they so justly deserve,” Pollock told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee in prepared testimony.
The new initiatives come following a blistering report last week by an independent review group co-chaired by former Army Secretaries John O. “Jack” Marsh and Togo D. West that found money woes and Pentagon neglect were to blame for many of the problems at Walter Reed.
Concluding that Pentagon officials should have known about problems but chose to ignore them, the panel ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a quick infusion of funds, a new “center of excellence” for brain injury cases as well as an overhaul of the disability claims system, which critics say shortchanges injured soldiers.
On Tuesday, Pollock and Dominguez said they had already begun implementing changes even as they awaited the findings of several investigations under way by presidential commissions, task forces and congressional committees.
- Creation of a working group of senior military leaders to speed disability determinations and work to eliminate inconsistency.
- Testing systems to facilitate sharing of inpatient records electronically with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Injured troops and veterans have complained of long wait times, multiple visits and lost paperwork as they moved from military hospitals to the VA’s vast network.
- Conducting additional health screenings for service members three to six months after they return home. The aim is to catch medical conditions that might not immediately be apparent, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury.
Pollock also said the Army was taking steps to speed up follow-up medical appointments as a result of its probe of 11 other military hospitals around the country to determine whether problems existed. That recently completed review, which has yet to be released, found “outstanding rehabilitative work being done given available resources” but urged efforts to reduce bureaucracy, Pollock said.
‘It’s creating enormous problems’
Meanwhile, the Army also has begun investigating complaints involving medical care made to its new toll-free number set up to identify problems. Last week, officials also trained 23 soldiers to help guide service members through the disability claims system.
“There is ample evidence that warriors are receiving quality health care and are satisfied with efforts,” Pollock said.
During the hearing, Marsh and West urged quick action on many of the independent review group’s recommendations.
Noting that many of the outpatient problems emerged due to poor government planning for the influx of soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan, they said scores of troops and veterans were now fighting unacceptable delays and red tape every day.
“It’s creating enormous problems,” Marsh said, “and I suspect the systemic problems in evidence at Walter Reed we’re going to find in other places. Please, I beg of you, have the commitment and fiscal awareness to see through changes.”
Since the disclosures in February, three top Pentagon officials have been forced to step down — former Army Secretary Francis Harvey, as well as Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman and Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the two previous commanders at Walter Reed.
Later this week, a presidential task force chaired by VA Secretary Jim Nicholson was expected to release findings on changes needed to help reduce delays and backlogs. A separate bipartisan commission chaired by former Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan., and former Health and Human Secretary Donna Shalala also is investigating ways to improve care and is scheduled to make recommendations by late July.