WASHINGTON -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates announced plans yesterday to form an independent review group to examine Walter Reed Army Medical Center and other military hospitals.
The announcement comes in the wake of reports indicating that seriously injured soldiers had been entangled in a bureaucratic morass and given substandard outpatient housing at Walter Reed. The review ordered by Gates will focus on rehabilitative care and administrative procedures at Walter Reed and at Bethesda Naval Medical Center.
"The men and women recovering at Walter Reed and at other military hospitals have put their lives on the line and paid a considerable price for defending our country," Gates said. "They battled our foreign enemies. They should not have to battle an American bureaucracy."
Defense officials have said that there are no allegations of systemic problems at Bethesda or other military hospitals, but Gates said the commission will be able to examine all military hospitals.
Articles this week in The Washington Post detailed shortcomings of the military health system, especially its outpatient facilities.
Gates said he was grateful to the reporters who brought the problems to light and said he was disappointed that the Defense Department had not found the problems earlier.
He promised that he would hold accountable the people who allowed the problems to occur in outpatient care at Walter Reed.
The defense secretary's tone was in sharp contrast to comments Thursday by Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, the Army surgeon general, who challenged the Post report as a "one-sided representation." Kiley, who used to command Walter Reed and oversees the hospital as head of Medical Command, said there was no "failure of leadership."
Gates did not criticize Kiley, but he said he was upset by the original articles and had not learned anything from Army officials that caused him to believe that the articles were wrong.
The review panel will report its results within 45 days and will be led by Togo D. West Jr., who served as Army secretary and secretary of Veterans Affairs in the Clinton administration, and John O. Marsh Jr., who was Army secretary under President Ronald Reagan.
The Defense Department has begun making repairs at Walter Reed and taking other steps to address the problems, officials said. Gates said some of those directly involved with problems identified at Walter Reed have been "relieved."
Army officials said later that no officers have been removed from command positions but that there have been administrative reassignments of some midlevel officials at the hospital.
The review panel will deliver its report to Congress, Gates said. But lawmakers have begun drafting their own recommendations for an overhaul.
A bill drafted by Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic presidential candidate, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat and a freshman member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, seeks to simplify the paperwork for injured soldiers, force the Army to add more caseworkers, and increase the oversight of Walter Reed.
A Democratic congressional staffer said the senators plan to introduce the bill next week.
Julian E. Barnes writes for the Los Angeles Times.