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Lawmakers question military health care after removal of Womack commander

Womack Army Medical Center, located at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, N.C., is dedicated to Medal of Honor recipient, and medic, Pfc. Bryant Homer Womack.

A shakeup at Fort Bragg's hospital has elected officials concerned and asking questions.

U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers, a Republican, said the removal of Womack Army Medical Center's commander was a sign of bigger issues in military health care, both for current troops and veterans.

In a release, Ellmers referenced the news at Womack and the ongoing scandal in the Department of Veterans Affairs health system.

"The recent problems affecting the healthcare of our nation's military struck home last night at Fort Bragg," Ellmers said. "While the details continue to unfold, the initial reports of substandard care and the neglect of our country's warriors and veterans should shock and outrage not only the Fort Bragg community, but the nation as a whole."

Rep. David Price, a Democrat, said he was disturbed by reports of substandard care at Womack and other military health facilities.

"I want DoD to get to the bottom of it. We need to know if the cause is human error, poor administration, lack of training, or other factors so that we can take steps to fix them," Price said. "In particular, we need to know whether these are isolated incidents or evidence of serious systemic problems. Like America's veterans, our service members and their families deserve quality healthcare, and we must make sure that they receive it."

On Tuesday, Col. Steven Brewster was removed from his post as commander of Womack Army Medical Center and three of his deputies were suspended pending investigations.

Brewster had led the Army hospital since July 2012 and was set to change command next month.

But senior Army medical leaders lost "trust and confidence" in Brewster, according to officials, and he was relieved of his duties "to address the changes needed to maintain a high level of patient care."

Col. Ronald Stephens assumed command of Womack effective Tuesday, officials said. Specific reasons for Brewster's ouster were not given.

According to reports, Brewster was removed, in part, because of two recent deaths at Womack. One of them involved a 29-year-old mother of three who had a routine procedure and died the next day.

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

Also on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered an immediate review of the military health system. The review will be led by Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. It 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.

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

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.

The hospital received full accreditation with no follow-up visits necessary, and Brewster said the issues came with documentation. He said the two-day stand down was an effort to retrain hospital staff on proper procedures while also updating those procedures.

Ellmers said she would work with others in the U.S. House of Representatives to ensure other leaders are held accountable and that medical care for the military, veterans and their families is strengthened and improved.

"While I appreciate the decision by the Department of Defense to act decisively following their review of glaring problems at Womack Army Medical Center, there remain many serious problems," Ellmers said. "Over the past month we have uncovered numerous reports of a nationwide failure in regards to the health care and support of our veterans and the men and women who fight for our country. This is shameful and must be addressed immediately.

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