WASHINGTON – The VA is ordering its 1,400 hospitals and clinics to report on the quality of their facilities to determine if squalid conditions found at Walter Reed exist elsewhere.
Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson issued the directive in an internal memorandum sent last week to the VA's medical center directors. He said "recent events" compelled him to redouble efforts to improve the physical environment at outpatient center and medical facilities.
"I am directing you hereby to conduct and supervise a full and immediate review of your facility's environments of care," Nicholson wrote in the March 7 memorandum, which was obtained Monday. The memo asks for a full report by March 14.
"As medical center and network directors, you all are responsible," he said. "Negative responses are required."
On Monday, Nicholson paid a surprise visit to the VA medical center in Richmond, Va., as part of the department's ongoing efforts to "make sure veterans are receiving access to the best possible care and environment."
During that time, he met with center officials for two to three hours to hear their concerns about what can be done to improve care, the department said, with more visits planned to other facilities in coming months.
Nicholson's moves come in the wake of disclosures of roach-infested conditions and shoddy outpatient care at Walter Reed Medical Center, one of the nation's premier facilities for treating those wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
It also comes as Democrats newly in charge of Congress have questioned whether Nicholson, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, is up to the job of revitalizing a veterans care system beset with bureaucratic delays and poor coordination.
Walter Reed is a military hospital run by the Defense Department. But critics have long said problems of military care extend to the VA's vast network, which provides supplemental health care and rehabilitation to 5.8 million veterans.
Since last month's report by the Washington Post on conditions at Walter Reed, three high-level Pentagon officials have been forced to step down over poor treatment there.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign and Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who was in charge of Walter Reed since August 2006, was ousted. On Monday, the Army said its surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, who headed Walter Reed from 2002 to 2004, was being forced to resign.
Over the weekend, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Armed Services Committee, said problems in veterans care are "going to take a lot more than a coat of paint on the walls."
"This is somebody who has spent a whole lot of the last few years defending everything about the White House," she said on CBS' "Face the Nation," referring to Nicholson. "It's time we put somebody in charge of the Veterans Administration whose first priority are the veterans and not the politics surrounding the agency."
Matt Burns, a VA spokesman, said no one cared more about veterans than Nicholson.
In the last week, Nicholson has hired more personnel to help treat post-traumatic stress disorder and expedited claims for veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He also is launching an "aggressive hiring program" to increase staffing by over 500 benefits employees by June, according to a letter submitted to Congress.
"His efforts will not be deterred by the divisive and partisan potshots that have come to typify Washington these days," Burns said.