WASHINGTON – Under criticism for poor treatment of injured soldiers, the Pentagon announced new measures Tuesday to provide more health screenings, improve its record-keeping system and overhaul an unwieldy disability claims system.
Testifying before a House panel, Michael Dominguez, principal deputy under secretary of Defense, and Major Gen. Gale Pollock, the Army's acting surgeon general, acknowledged a need for major changes in the outpatient treatment of wounded soldiers and veterans.
They expressed confidence in a new leadership team overseeing Walter Reed Army Medical Center following disclosures of shoddy treatment in February and urged lawmakers to be patient.
"We believe we have the right people and the right mechanisms in place to make sure that all soldiers who are in a transitional status — our warriors in transition — are managed with care and compassion, and that they and their families are receiving the care they so justly deserve," Pollock told a House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee in prepared testimony.
The new initiatives come following a blistering report last week by an independent review group that found money woes and Pentagon neglect were to blame for many of the problems at Walter Reed.
Concluding that Pentagon officials should have known about problems but chose to ignore them, the panel ordered by Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a quick infusion of funds, a new "center of excellence" for brain injury cases as well as an overhaul of the disability claims system, which critics say shortchanges injured soldiers.
On Tuesday, Pollock and Dominguez said they had already begun implementing changes even as they awaited the findings of several investigations under way by presidential commissions, task forces and congressional committees.
—Creation of a working group of senior military leaders to speed disability determinations and work to eliminate inconsistency.
—Testing systems to facilitate sharing of inpatient records electronically with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Injured troops and veterans have complained of long wait times, multiple visits and lost paperwork as they moved from military hospitals to the VA's vast network.
—Conducting additional health screenings for service members three to six months after they return home to catch medical conditions that might not immediately be apparent, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee, said major change was needed. He reminded Pentagon officials that problems of bureaucratic delay had been known for years but nothing was done.
Since the disclosures in February, three top Pentagon officials have been forced to step down — former Army Secretary Francis Harvey, as well as Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman and Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, the two previous commanders at Walter Reed.
Tierney said lawmakers would be watching the new leadership team closely. "What I want to know is very simple — what is going to be different this time around under your watch to solve these problems once and for all?"