The Army has yet to fully staff the new "warrior transition units" being put together because of poor conditions at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, according to a congressional report made public Wednesday.
As of mid-September over half of these units had significant shortfalls in one or more critical positions, the Government Accountability Office said in a report presented to a House hearing on treatment of wounded soldiers.
Many of the current staffers, said John Pendleton, author of the report, are borrowed, presumably temporarily, from other offices. Ultimately, hundreds more nurses, social workers and mental health specialists will be needed to handle such issues as traumatic brain injuries and post traumatic stress disorder, he said.
The GAO also noted that the Pentagon and the Veterans Affairs Departments were behind schedule in starting a pilot program under which the two departments would adopt a single medical examination and a single disability rating performed by the VA.
"We are seven months into this process, and we are just now getting off the ground," said Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on national security. "Why has it taken so long to get going on that?"
Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, commanding general at Walter Reed, said staffing of warrior transition units at health care facilities was now 65 percent, and they were on "the projected glidepath" to full staffing by January.
Less than 50 percent staffed
Under the Army plan, each injured service member is to be assigned three key people — a doctor, a nurse case manager and a squad leader — to manage the member's care.
The GAO said that as of mid-September, 17 of the 32 warrior transition units created around the country had less than 50 percent of staff in place and 46 percent of eligible service members had not been assigned to a unit.
Better case management was one of the main recommendations of several commissions formed after the problems at Walter Reed were revealed.
Another was to streamline the disability evaluation process to coordinate Pentagon and VA standards and reduce the bureaucracy that results in veterans waiting for months for decisions on their claims.
Retired Adm. Patrick Dunne, the VA's assistant secretary for policy and planning, told the hearing that the pilot program to set up a unified disability evaluation system should be completed by the second quarter of 2008. If successful, it will be expanded beyond the Washington capital region to become universal.
Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., top Republican on the panel, said his office hears every week from wounded soldiers stuck in an evaluation system they don't understand and that is complicated by different ratings coming out of the Defense Department and the VA. "Having to run that double gauntlet causes additional pain and confusion, literally adding insult to injury. That has to stop."
Schoomaker also listed improvements made at Walter Reed over the past seven months, including installing phones, cable TV and Internet in each patient room, providing 24-hours-a-day family counselors and setting up a one-stop assistance center to provide family assistance, finance and personnel services.