BETHESDA - President Bush turned a spade of dirt to ceremonially launch a major expansion of one of the nation's premier military hospitals yesterday, saying he hoped a new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center "will be the site of many miracles of healing."
Flanked by officers, soldiers and civilian military leaders, Bush joined Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Montgomery County and Maryland Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown in dipping a gold-painted shovel into a container of soil in the shadow of the art deco tower that is the centerpiece of the National Naval Medical Center.
A $907 million expansion will add a four-story in-patient building and a six-story outpatient building to consolidate care for wounded Army, Navy and Air Force personnel. When it is ted, the recently maligned Walter Reed facility on Georgia Avenue in the District of Columbia will be closed.
"Our troops and their families will no longer have to travel between Bethesda and Walter Reed to see multiple specialists," Bush said.
For years, the name Walter Reed - opened in 1909 and named for the Army doctor who discovered that mosquitoes spread yellow fever - was synonymous with stellar medical care. But that changed in February 2007, after The Washington Post published results of a four-month investigation that found moldy rooms, lax supervision and a zantine administrative system that left soldiers and their families fumbling for basic items such as new uniforms.
The president named a blue-ribbon panel headed by former Sen. Bob Dole and Donna E. Shalala, health and human services secretary in the Clinton administration, to study care for wounded veterans and make recommendations, and top officers in charge of Walter Reed were fired or reassigned. Bush made no mention of the troubles yesterday, but credited the Dole-Shalala commission for its work.
The poor conditions were most prevalent in out-patient housing, not in the hospital itself, which remains well-regarded for its life-saving treatments.
The military had already announced that Walter Reed would be closed and relocated by 2011 as part of the national base realignment and closure process, or BRAC, before the conditions came to light. The realignment process is bringing roughly 20,000 jobs to Maryland, and local officials are scrambling for federal money to add the roads and classrooms they say are needed.
Bush said the new Walter Reed will be a place of "innovation" and "compassion," adding "we look forward to the day when the joy of recovery echoes through the halls of the new medical facility that will be built here."