WASHINGTON — Fearing that the Army may be mishandling the matter, the top senator on the veterans affairs panel said Wednesday that she has begun an investigation into whether military hospitals across the country are denying treatment to service members with post-traumatic stress disorder because of cost considerations.
Democrat Patty Murray, the chairwoman of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee, said she decided to take the step to make sure that Army officials "don't just bury this under the rug" as they investigate the issue on their own.
"I will not be satisfied until I know that they have done an absolutely in-depth evaluation and found every soldier that may have been misdiagnosed — in a timely manner — and get them the care they need," Murray said in an interview.
The Army already is conducting at least three separate probes amid disclosures that the Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Murray's home state of Washington has reversed hundreds of PTSD diagnoses for patients who were up for medical retirement. Murray's office said last week that a review of PTSD cases dating to 2007 found that 290 of 690 diagnoses — more than 40 percent — had been reversed by a medical screening team.
The Army now is re-evaluating how those diagnoses were changed.
Murray said she fears the same type of misdiagnoses may be happening at other military hospitals. She said she already has directed her committee staff to start looking for other cases. While Murray's committee does not oversee the Army, it has oversight over all issues involving veterans and the federal services they receive as soon as they leave the active military.
"Obviously, there's a very intense focus, necessarily, on Madigan right now and that has to be ongoing," Murray said. "But I've directed my VA staff to start looking at cases nationwide, and we are finding them. I want to make sure that the Army is not just saying, 'Well, this was just Madigan,' because if we do that we're going to lose a lot of people who have the same issue across the country. ... I'm going to absolutely stay on top of the Army."
The fourth-term senator announced her investigation earlier in the day when she questioned Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, who's also the commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command, at a hearing of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Horoho oversees all of the Army's medical facilities.
Murray told Horoho that her aides "have already encountered cases" that raise questions. As part of their work, Senate investigators want to make sure that the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs are using the same standard to diagnose PTSD.
Horoho, a former Madigan commander, did not reveal any details of the Army's investigations, but she told Murray and the other subcommittee members that the Army is using the same diagnostic tools for PTSD used by the Air Force, Navy and civilian doctors.
"It's the best standard that's out there for diagnosing," she said.
PTSD is a mental condition that results when a person experiences a traumatic event, such as war. Symptoms include nightmares, flashbacks and irritability. A service member with the diagnosis becomes eligible for more financial benefits.
The Army began investigating at Madigan in January after complaints that officials there had adjusted diagnoses to make sure that soldiers did not receive full disability benefits for PTSD.
The issue of mental health care has been a top concern for the Veterans' Affairs Committee, both for Murray and Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, the top Republican on the panel.
In November, the two scolded the VA, saying it was not moving quickly enough to help returning service members with PTSD and other afflictions who all too often face long wait times in trying to get mental health appointments.
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