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Commander of Womack Army Medical Center relieved of duty

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — The leader of Fort Bragg's hospital has been relieved of his duties after senior Army medical leaders lost "trust and confidence" in him.

Col. Steven Brewster had served as commander of Womack Army Medical Center since July 2012. He was set to change command on June 18.

But Brewster was relieved several weeks early at the behest of Col. Robert Tenhet, commander of Northern Regional Medical Command, according to a release from U.S. Army Medical Command.

The decision to relieve Brewster and temporarily suspend the deputy commanders for clinical services, nursing and administration was approved by Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, U.S. Army surgeon general and commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command.

Col. Ronald Stephens assumed command of Womack effective Tuesday, officials said. By Tuesday afternoon, Brewster's photograph and biography were missing from the Womack website.

Also on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an immediate and comprehensive review of the military health system.

The review, led by assistant secretary of defense for health affairs Jonathan Woodson, will focus on access to care and "an assessment of the safety and quality of health care," according to the Pentagon. The review is expected to last 90 days.

An official reason for Brewster's ouster was not given Tuesday, but officials said the suspensions would be pending the outcome of investigations.

The New York Times, citing an unnamed defense department official, reported the changes at Womack were in part spurred by two recent deaths, including the death of a 29-year-old mother of three.

Racheal Marie Rice, who is married to a Fort Bragg soldier, underwent a routine procedure on May 16 at Womack and died the next morning, according to officials.

According to a release, Brewster was relieved of his duties "to address the changes needed to maintain a high level of patient care."

"Investigations into these issues are ongoing, and further action will be forthcoming," officials said. "We assure you that the Army is committed to doing whatever is necessary to provide proper medical care to our soldiers and their families."

Brewster was a family physician specializing in preventative medicine when he took command of Womack, its $400 million budget and its nearly 4,000 employees — military and civilian — nearly two years ago.

At the time, he was lauded for his energy, vision and compassion when he came to Fort Bragg from a post in Germany.

Womack, which now has about 2,300 employees, has the busiest emergency department in the Army, officials have said, and the 163-acre site on Fort Bragg serves more than 160,000 eligible beneficiaries — the largest population in the Army.

Brewster began his military career as an enlisted medic at Fort Richardson, Alaska, in 1980.

He later earned his medical degree from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda, Maryland, and served at military hospitals in Virginia, New York, Germany and Belgium.

Earlier this year, Womack officials delayed medical procedures following concerns with the hospital's accreditation.

The hospital is accredited every three years, with a team spending a week observing the hospital.

In March, Brewster told The Fayetteville Observer the hospital put off surgeries and other medical procedures over two days during a hospitalwide "stand down" to address the findings of a team from the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations, a national nonprofit that accredits more than 20,000 health care organizations and programs.

Brewster said the accreditation team that visited the hospital had concerns with infection control, but found no evidence that patients had been harmed or were in danger.

He said the hospital received full accreditation with no follow-up visits necessary.

Brewster said the issues came with documentation and the two-day stand down was an effort to retrain hospital staff on proper procedures while also updating those procedures.

"We were doing the disinfection well but we weren't documenting that we were doing it well," Brewster said at the time.

"The Joint Commission was very candid with us," Brewster said. "We took their advice very seriously."

Brewster said the stand-down was unusual, but "purely preventative."

"It was an effort to prevent anything from happening," he said. "If you notice something is wrong, that's when you act on it. You don't wait. There's no time to wait."

brooksd@fayobserver.com
 

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