It was a strange week for military healthcare, to say the least.
The biggest news? On Friday morning Ret. General Eric Shinseki resigned as secretary of veteran’s affairs after weeks of bad news centering largely on veterans having ridiculously long waiting times to see doctors. At least 40 veterans are said to have died while waiting.
It has now been reported that schedulers at VA medical centers across the U.S. were instructed by their supervisors to fraudulently report the waiting times by keeping two waiting lists: the actual list and the one the medical centers reported to national officials.
But two other pretty major things related to military health care happened last week, as well: On Wednesday, with timing that was said to be purely coincidental, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel ordered a 90-day review of the active duty medical system to make sure that the same fake waiting list fraud isn’t a problem for active duty troops and their families. One day prior, Col. Stephen Brewster was relieved as the Commander of Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg following the deaths of a soldier and an Army wife in the hospital. Three other Womack officials were also removed from their jobs and investigations into the two deaths are ongoing.
For weeks now, calls for Shinseki to resign have been increasing, primarily coming from members of Congress. When he tendered his resignation, Shinseki apologized for what he called an “indefensible” lack of integrity among some senior leaders of the VA health-care system and he said steps were being taking to fix the problems, including a process to remove top officials at the VA medical center in Phoenix, where news of the fraudulent waiting lists first broke.
Sloan D. Gibson, the deputy secretary of veterans affairs, is taking over as acting secretary until a permanent replacement for Shinseki is found and confirmed by the Senate.
Shinseki said that he was stepping down because his presence was becoming a distraction from the real problem, which is that veterans are not getting the care they need.
Active duty system examined
Understandably worried that similar problems might also be happening in the active duty health care system, Hagel announced a comprehensive 90-day evaluation that will focus on safety and quality of medical care in the military system, which serves 9.6 million active-duty service members, retirees and their dependents.
Problems at Bragg
The announcement of the review came immediately after the commander of Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was relieved of his duties several weeks ahead of time.
Col. Steven Brewster, who was already scheduled to leave the hospital on June 18, was relieved of command Tuesday. Three of his deputies – commanders for clinical services, nursing and administration – were suspended, all on the heels of the suspicious deaths of two young patients and after the hospital was dinged by an independent accrediting body as having surgical infection control problems.
In March, the Joint Commission, an independent, nonprofit body that accredits more than 20,500 healthcare organizations nationwide, raised concerns about possible surgical infections at Womack. Brewster suspended elective surgery for two days to address the issue.
Womack serves active-duty service members and their dependents, along with military retirees and their families. Serving 160,000 beneficiaries, Womack is the largest of the 41 in-patient Army hospitals operated in the United States by the Department of Defense.
Col. Ronald Stephens assumed command of the hospital Tuesday, about three weeks earlier than originally scheduled.
Racheal Marie Rice was the first of the two suspicious fatalities at Womack. The 29-year-old Army wife and mother of three, underwent a routine tubal ligation May 16 and died the next morning.
The second patient, a 24-old-year-old active-duty service member whose name has not been released, visited the emergency room last weekend and received a diagnosis of tachycardia, a potentially dangerous condition involving an elevated heart rate. He had recently been treated in Womack’s surgery unit for abscesses.
He was given medication, instructed to follow up with his doctor and released. His and Rice’s deaths are currently under investigation.