WASHINGTON—Wounded soldiers at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state say the Army is trying to push them into the Veterans Affairs medical system; they're being denied medical treatments; and they face retaliation if they complain, Washington state lawmakers said in a letter to the Army secretary.
The letter to acting Army Secretary Pete Geren came after the lawmakers or their staff members visited Madigan 13 days ago and met privately with wounded soldiers and their families.
The lawmakers said the soldiers they met with felt "unanimously" that Army officials were trying to force them out of the Defense Department system and into the Department of Veterans Affairs system.
They also said the soldiers and their families thought that the Army's Medical Evaluation Board and Physical Evaluation Board processes are "too cumbersome and generally unresponsive" to their needs.
"Some soldiers had been in the disability assessment process for three years," said the letter, signed by Democratic Reps. Norm Dicks and Adam Smith, Republican Rep. Dave Reichert and Washington state's two Democratic senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell.
In addition, the lawmakers said they were told that the Army does an inadequate job of diagnosing and treating mental health diseases such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and often dismisses PTSD as "anxiety."
Though the lawmakers said improvements were already being made, they were concerned that what they heard at Madigan and Fort Lewis, near Tacoma, could reflect similar problems throughout the Army medical system.
The lawmakers said they were told that:
_Necessary medical procedures and treatments were being denied.
_Case managers were primarily interested in protecting the Army's interests and not the soldiers' health.
_High turnover of doctors and medical staff led to "negative" medical care and interfered with the "consistent and efficient application" of Army disability standards.
_Soldiers face retribution, including loss of promotions, reductions in benefits and other "thinly-veiled threats," if they complain or help fellow soldiers.
The legislators also heard complaints that the medical staff and caseworkers were overworked, that the Medical Evaluation Board process doesn't provide time for adequate appeals and that the Army won't allow prior medical records and outside diagnoses to be considered when determining disability levels.
"The soldiers, guardsmen and reservists who serve and protect our nation deserve the best medical care we can deliver to them individually, the best support that we can give to their families and the best opportunity for them to have fulfilling and productive lives in the future," the strongly worded letter said. "Not only is this the right thing to do for the people who serve today, it is the right thing to do to sustain the highest quality military in the future."
Madigan officials said the problems are already being addressed, including by the appointment of a medical ombudsman for the Medical Holdover Unit, giving soldiers access to an inspector general representative and increasing the time soldiers are given to review their medical evaluation board results.
"Our goal at Fort Lewis and Madigan is to ensure every soldier receives quality health care," Sharon Ayala, a Madigan spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Dicks said Thursday that he hand-delivered the letter to Geren during a meeting of the congressional Army Caucus. Dicks said he also spoke with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about the situation at Madigan and problems throughout the Army's medical system.
"I told him not to wait for all these commissions that have been appointed," Dicks said. "I told him we can fix about 95 percent of what's wrong without their recommendations."
Two days after the soldiers met with the lawmakers, they met with the two top generals at Fort Lewis and Madigan, Lt. Gen. James M. Dubik and Brig. Gen. Sheila Baxter, respectively. Dicks said the meeting was an eye-opener for Dubik.
"He was mad," Dicks said. "I have great confidence in General Dubik."
Since that meeting, Dubik and Baxter have made a number of changes and asked the Pentagon for money and staff to initiate a pilot program that the rest of the Army could use.
But Dicks cautioned that some of the improvements that are needed at Madigan and elsewhere require Defense Department approval, and Congress may need to amend some laws.
For more information on veterans and military health issues, see McClatchy Newspapers' "Wounded Warriors" blog: http://washingtonbureau.typepad.com/veterans/
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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