By voting to eliminate emergency room and inpatient services at Kimbrough Army Community Hospital at Fort Meade, a federal panel has broken government promises to military retirees and the children of active duty soldiers, two former post commanders have said.
"Kimbrough is very important to many retirees because the only medical plan for retirees is what the Army has left them with," said Col. Kent Menser, who retired two years ago. "When a facility like Kimbrough leaves, that means there will be less support available for the retirees."
Col. Gorham L. Black III, Colonel Menser's predecessor, said yesterday he worried about military families with children who have special physical or educational needs.
"The emergency room is the first stop for life sustainment," he said. "They're taking a child with cystic fibrosis or some other ungodly ailment and forcing the parents to figure out where to get that first bit of life sustainment support. I can't understand it."
But Lt. Col. Steven Markelz, an administrator at Kimbrough, said the decision last week by the Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission to downgrade the hospital to a clinic is not as much a problem as might appear.
About 90 percent of the hospital's patients do not require emergency attention, he said, and national studies have shown that the numbers of patients requiring hospitalization has been dropping steadily over the past several years.
Although Kimbrough will lose its emergency room and intensive care unit, it will continue to provide primary care, perform surgery, and maintain a referral service, Colonel Markelz said.
Active or retired military personnel who need emergency care can go to civilian hospitals, such as North Arundel, which is about 15 minutes away, or to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, which is about 40 minutes away.
Colonel Markelz said Kimbrough administrators would review the cases of the more than 70 families stationed at Fort Meade who have children with special needs and decide whether to transfer them to other bases in Maryland that could meet those needs.
"I think we'll still have a first-class unit out here," he said. "Just the mission has changed."
But Alfred A. Shehab, a 75-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel who has been treated at Kimbrough for more than 30 years, was not reassured.
"My reaction is extreme disappointment," he said. "The emergency room is very vital. We understand the need for closure of bases, but how they came about this, I don't know."