Top Army Doc Cites Progress One Year After Walter Reed Revelations
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 15, 2008 The Army has made huge improvements in the way it cares for combat-wounded troops during the year since news reports brought problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to light, the Army surgeon general told Congress today.
Army Lt. Gen. (Dr.) Eric Schoomaker, who also commands U.S. Army Medical Command, told the House Armed Service Committee’s Military Personnel Subcommittee the Army’s medical action plan “is continuing to move forward” and making steady progress in improving care for wounded warriors.
“We as an Army are committed to getting this right and providing a level of care and support to our warriors and families that’s equal to the quality of their service,” he said.
Navy Vice Adm. (Dr.) Adam Robinson and Air Force Lt. Gen. (Dr.) James Roudebush, their services’ surgeons general, joined Schoomaker at the table during today’s hearing. However, one year after a Washington Post series outlined serious gaps in care at the Army’s premier medical center, the bulk of the discussion focused on the Army’s efforts through its medical action plan.
Schoomaker called the day the first of those articles appeared “a painful day” for Army medicine, but one he said has strengthened the Army’s collective resolve to do better. Because of those revelations and the Army leadership’s response, “we truly are a better Army today with respect to how we care for our soldiers,” he told the panel.
Schoomaker called new warrior transition units the backbone of the Army medical action plan designed to address the problem.
More than 2,400 soldier-leaders -- up from fewer than 400 this time last year -- now are assigned as cadre to 35 of these units, he told the panel.
The warrior transition units, collocated Army-wide with medical treatment facilities, offer a “triad” that includes a soldier’s primary-care physician, nurse case manager and squad leader, he explained. All work together to attend to the needs of wounded soldiers and their families.
The triad provides “a web of overlapping responsibility” to ensure no soldiers ever fall between bureaucratic cracks for the duration of their treatment, recovery, rehabilitation and transition back to military service or to civilian life, Schoomaker said.
A new Medical Command-wide ombudsman program is another improvement in the care provided to wounded, ill or injured troops, he said. Ombudsman at 26 installations work outside the chain of command but have direct access to the hospital, garrison and installation commanders “to get problems fixed,” Schoomaker said.
The Army also has established a toll-free hotline for wounded soldiers and their families, he said. The Department of Veterans Affairs has expressed interest in setting up a similar hotline, which gives wounded soldiers and family members 24-hour access to assistance regarding their care or administrative concerns.
“We have fielded in excess of 7,000 calls to date, and we answer that call and find a solution for them and get the process going to get it ultimately fixed within 24 hours,” Schoomaker said.
Schoomaker pointed to the hotline and ombudsman programs as examples of multiple feedback mechanisms now in place to ensure Army leaders are “seeing the full picture” in ways they didn’t a year ago. The Army is now able to monitor and evaluate its performance through 18 internal and external means, including patient surveys. These “provide a very granular view of how our patients and families feel we’re doing for them,” Schoomaker said.
Despite these successes, he said, there’s much still to be done. More research is needed into psychological health and traumatic brain injury, he said. The physical disability and evaluation system needs to be changed to make it less antagonistic, more understandable, more user-friendly and more equitable.
A good start, he said, is a pilot program under way in the Washington, D.C., area designed to bring the Defense Department’s and VA’s programs more in line. “I want to continue to pursue changes in the disability evaluation system as aggressively as possible and to get legislative relief for a single system of adjudication,” he said.
Schoomaker thanked the panel for its support for these and other initiatives to help wounded warriors and their families, and he reiterated the Army’s resolve in ensuring they’re treated fairly.
“The Army’s unwavering commitment and a key element of our warrior ethos is that we never leave a soldier behind on the battlefield or lost in a bureaucracy,” he said. “We are doing a better job of honoring that commitment today than we were at this date last year. … We have turned the corner.”