Hagel orders review of military health care

In this May 1, 2014 file photo, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters at the Pentagon. Hagel said in an interview broadcast Friday that the focus of an investigation into alleged delayed treatments and deaths in the Veterans Administration's health care system should be to "fix the problem" rather than fire VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday announced a sweeping review of the Pentagon’s health-care facilities, spurred by concern that it could be suffering from strains similar to those afflicting the Department of Veterans Affairs system.

Officials said the review is expected to take 90 days.

As outrage spread over reports that several patients at a VA facility in Phoenix died waiting for care Hagel became concerned about the state of the health-care network that treats the active-duty force, his spokesman said.

“It’s clearly within the context of what he’s watching at the VA,” the Pentagon press secretary, Rear Adm. John Kirby, said in a statement. “He wants to know what we don’t know. He doesn’t want to wait for similar allegations to appear with the active military healthcare system.”

Kirby said the review was unrelated to the situation at Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, one of the Army’s largest medical facilities. The ouster of the head of that facility, Col. Steven Brewster, and the suspension of three top deputies, was reported Tuesday on the website of The New York Times.

The Army removed the four Tuesday after two patients in their 20s unexpectedly died in the past 10 days, shortly after they sought treatment at the hospital’s emergency room.

The changes were due both to the patient deaths and to problems with surgical-infection control identified in March by the Joint Commission, an independent body that accredits hospitals, according to the Times. In a statement, the Army said that “senior Army medical leaders have lost trust and confidence” in Brewster, Womack’s commander, and had replaced him with Col. Ronald T. Stephens, another doctor.

New acting deputies were also named to head clinical services, nursing and administration while investigations continue.

According to the Times report, the first of the two recent fatalities at Womack involved Racheal Marie Rice, a 29-year-old mother of three who underwent a routine tubal ligation May 16 and died the next morning, according to hospital staff members. The procedure is considered low-risk for complications and death. Within three hours of surgery, Rice, the wife of an active-duty soldier, returned to the emergency room, feeling ill.

Patients who return that soon after surgery are supposed to be placed on a triage list and seen quickly. But Rice waited for about two hours without seeing a doctor, then left to breast-feed her baby, who is about 6 months old, according to people familiar with the case. By the next morning, she was close to death. An ambulance took her from her home back to Womack, where she died.

The second patient, a 24-year-old active-duty servicemember who could not be identified, visited the emergency room last weekend and received a diagnosis of tachycardia, a potentially dangerous condition involving an elevated heart rate, according to two people familiar with the case.

He was given medication, instructed to follow up with his doctor and released, according to one staff member. Why and where he died remained unclear on Tuesday.

The Times wrote that Pentagon data shows that Womack, which performs more than 14,000 inpatient and outpatient surgical procedures a year, had a higher-than-expected rate of surgical complications from January 2010 to July 2013, the latest data available. In March, the hospital suspended all elective surgery for two days after inspectors from the Joint Commission found fault with surgical infection control procedures.

The hospital remains fully accredited, the Times noted.

Kirby said Hagel received a preliminary briefing on the state of the Defense Department’s health-care system this week. He is scheduled to meet Wednesday morning with senior officials who will play a role in the assessment.

In the statement released late Tuesday, Kirby said the review will “examine whether current access to care meets the department standards. It will also examine the safety and quality of the care” extended to military members, Defense Department civilians and their dependents.

Asked whether there are indications of problems beyond Fort Bragg, Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said:

“This review will determine that. I don’t know that we’ve seen any indications that there is a crisis in the department.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Jon Harper contributed to this report.


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