White House

Bush announces plans to investigate veterans' health care

WASHINGTON—In more fallout from reports of appalling conditions at the Army's top medical facility, Army Secretary Francis Harvey resigned Friday and President Bush announced a far-reaching investigation into the quality of health care for wounded troops.

Bush said he'd appoint a bipartisan commission to examine the treatment of wounded military personnel "from the time they leave the battlefield through their return to civilian life." He said he was "deeply troubled" by reports of substandard care at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where some recuperating veterans complained of being neglected and left in moldy, deteriorating facilities.

The president will formally announce the new commission in his Saturday radio address, but the White House released an early transcript of his remarks. In an unusual move, it distributed his comments for immediate release, without waiting for his speech. He taped his comments Friday.

Bush said he would appoint the commission "in the coming days" and would set "a firm deadline" for a report.

Harvey's resignation came a day after Maj. Gen. George Weightman was ousted as the top commander at Walter Reed. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested that Harvey and Weightman were forced out because they downplayed problems highlighted by recent stories in The Washington Post. Some problems at Walter Reed were first reported as early as 2005 by the online magazine Salon.

"I am disappointed that some in the Army have not adequately appreciated the seriousness of the situation pertaining to outpatient care at Walter Reed," Gates said with what appeared to be barely contained anger. "Some have shown too much defensiveness and have not shown enough focus on digging into and addressing the problems."

He blamed the problems on Walter Reed's leadership, not its doctors, nurses and other health-care workers.

The Army later announced that Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker would become the new commander at Walter Reed, replacing Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, who spent just a day in the post after Harvey tapped him to fill in. Kiley, who'd served a previous stint at Walter Reed, drew objections from critics, who said he'd failed to confront some of the same problems that recently came to light.

The treatment of wounded soldiers and veterans has become a sensitive issue in the context of the Iraq war.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said the panel would subpoena Weightman to a hearing Monday. The Army had tried to prevent him from testifying.

The House Armed Services Committee announced plans for a hearing Thursday on conditions at Walter Reed.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., toured Walter Reed on Friday and complained that wounded soldiers had been directed to stop talking to reporters. In a letter to Harvey before he resigned, the Democratic presidential candidate said wounded soldiers "have earned the right to have their voices heard."

The Washington Post stories on Walter Reed were among a series of recent news accounts highlighting problems in medical care for veterans and active-duty military personnel.

McClatchy Newspapers early last month detailed widespread gaps in the Department of Veterans Affairs' mental health-care system and showed how veterans in many parts of the country have limited access to specialized treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, the most frequent mental-health problem to emerge from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

McClatchy previously had documented problems in the VA's disability compensation and other benefits systems. An ABC News special this week highlighted troubles in the VA's care of veterans with traumatic brain injuries, and Newsweek magazine blasts the VA in its current cover story for a host of problems in its medical and benefits divisions.

Veterans' health care is a sensitive issue for an administration that claims to offer the best equipment and care to active-duty troops and veterans.

Accounts of dismal conditions at Walter Reed were particularly embarrassing for the White House because Bush often visits the hospital. His last trip was in December, but aides said he was unaware of any problems until he read about them in the newspaper.

"Some of our troops at Walter Reed have experienced bureaucratic delays and living conditions that are less than they deserve. This is unacceptable to me, it is unacceptable to our country and it's not going to continue," Bush says in his prepared radio remarks.

He adds, "As we work to improve conditions at Walter Reed, we're also taking steps to find out whether similar problems have occurred at other military and veterans hospitals."

Walter Reed is part of the Pentagon's military health system, designed to serve active-duty personnel. The VA's operations for military veterans are far larger, with more than 150 hospitals and more than 875 outpatient clinics nationwide.

In his radio speech, Bush points to the VA's expanding budget as evidence of "our ongoing effort to improve our service to our nation's veterans." If Congress approves his fiscal 2008 VA budget, he said, the agency's health-care budget will have jumped by 83 percent in the past six years and its overall budget will have increased 77 percent, to $86 billion.

There's no question that the VA's budget has grown recently, and the health system has received good marks for significant improvements.

At the same time, Democrats in Congress and others question whether the VA's budget is keeping pace with burdens imposed by increasing numbers of veterans coming back from the war, aging patients and rising medical-care costs.

"Yes, it has been increased, but certainly it hasn't been increased enough to meet the demands, the salary increases and inflationary factors," said Joe Violante, the national legislative director for Disabled American Veterans.

At a budget hearing two weeks ago, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., questioned the administration's estimate that the VA would treat 263,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans next year—a figure that she suggested was too low.

In addition, Violante and others say the VA suffers from inconsistent access: good hospitals and clinics in some part of the country and understaffed or overwhelmed hospitals elsewhere.