WASHINGTON – Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the aging hospital heavily criticized for inadequate care of wounded war veterans, should be closed as planned, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday.
Gates' conclusion, following a review of Walter Reed by an independent advisory group, runs counter to the recommendation of some in Congress who have called recently for the Pentagon to reverse its 2005 decision to close the facility.
The review group, which presented a summary of its conclusions at a Pentagon news conference with Gates, recommended that Walter Reed remain on a list of military facilities to be closed. It also urged that a plan to move the hospital's capabilities to an expanded National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., be accelerated.
The review group's central finding, released last month, was that money woes and Pentagon neglect were mainly to blame for shoddy outpatient conditions and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed, the Army's premier medical center.
Citing lapses in leadership and oversight as main reasons for the problems, the nine-member independent group concluded that the Defense Department was, or should have been, aware of the widespread problems but neglected them because they knew Walter Reed was scheduled for eventual closure.
Gates indicated to reporters that he saw little wisdom in pouring money into Walter Reed to keep it open indefinitely.
"Far better to make an investment in brand-new, 21st-century facilities," he said, referring to the plan announced in 2005 to expand the Bethesda medical center and to build a new medical center at Fort Belvoir, Va.
"And how can we accelerate getting those facilities in place? And how can you keep high-quality staff at Walter Reed, right up until the day that people transfer to one of the other hospitals?" Gates added.
He said that based on currently available information it would make sense to go ahead with the plan to close Walter Reed in 2011.
"But we ought to have the flexibility to make sure that it stays open until Bethesda and Fort Belvoir are completely ready to take on the responsibilities of the patients and the staff that are at Walter Reed now. Walter Reed should not be closed unless those other facilities are ready to go, in my opinion," he added.
Gates also announced the formation of a committee of senior military and civilian officials to make sure that recommendations of the review group and those of a presidential commission are promptly implemented and coordinated.
Appearing with Gates at the news conference were the two chairmen of the independent review group: John O. "Jack" Marsh, Army secretary during the Reagan administration, and Togo D. West, secretary of the Army and Veterans Affairs under President Clinton.
Asked why it took the Army so long to recognize the problems at Walter Reed that came to light earlier this year in a series of Washington Post reports, March said: "There was a breakdown in a system or methodology of reporting complaints and concerns. There were some soldiers who had indicated that they tried to complain about it, but nobody listened."