WASHINGTON—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates announced another high-level review of military and veterans health facilities across the country Wednesday, saying he feared that the bureaucratic problems that led to substandard care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington exist elsewhere.
Gates spoke as a Cabinet-level task force held its first meeting to identify immediate steps to improve government services for military personnel returning from long tours overseas.
President Bush met Wednesday with former Sen. Robert Dole, R-Kan., and Donna Shalala, the health and human services secretary in the Clinton administration. Bush has named Dole and Shalala to chair a blue-ribbon commission to investigate problems in the military and veterans health-care systems.
"Any report of medical neglect will be taken seriously by this administration," Bush said.
The scandal threatens to damage Bush politically, as Democrats on Capitol Hill seized on the issue to highlight mistreatment of military personnel wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Pentagon is failing our servicemen at exactly the time they need our support," declared Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who was tapped to oversee the Democratic response to the scandal.
Gates said at a news conference that he's ordered a high-level review of all Defense Department medical care programs and facilities "to ensure that we are providing all of our troops the standard of care that they deserve."
It's critical that "from the standpoint of the soldier and not from the bureaucratic standpoint" that the "quality of attention and care . . . is what it should be," Gates said. "I'm concerned that it is not."
He said he's worried that bureaucratic problems are most acute when wounded soldiers are transferred from Defense Department-run medical facilities into the care of the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Gates said he hopes Dole and Shalala will look closely at that part of the system.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that even though he'd visited Walter Reed often, he was unaware of the substandard conditions at an outpatient facility there until the Washington Post disclosed them.
"My trips have been to the wards where the troops . . . had recently come in," he said. "I am now chastened to remind myself that when I go visit (military) hospitals, I should also find the other places in the hospitals where the longer-term care is being given."
He insisted that the immediate care given by military and veterans hospitals is among the best in the nation.
Dole agreed, saying that most of the wounded veterans he's met have told him that their immediate treatment "is excellent."
"It's what happens when they've either finished their care or moved off to some outpatient area where we have seen the problem," said Dole, who's undergone extensive treatment for wounds he suffered in World War II. "Obviously, it's a tragedy."
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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