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Congressman Yarmuth Calls for Answers from Secretary of Defense Regarding Patient Advocacy at Walter Reed

(Washington, DC)  Four days after conducting an unprecedented hearing at Walter Reed that explored the deficiencies in the care of wounded soldiers, Congressman Yarmuth continues his effort to ensure better care for veterans.  Today in a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, Congressman Yarmuth questioned the Army's use of patient advocates to better understand the conditions that led to the "deplorable" treatment of United States Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

The Army currently has a patient advocacy system, and Congressman Yarmuth expressed his desire to work with Secretary Gates to determine why the advocacy program was ineffective in preventing the appalling level of care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

"There is a very real urgency to understand how and why this situation was allowed to spiral so horribly out of control," Congressman Yarmuth said.  "I am hopeful that Secretary Gates will join me in working to better understand the massive breakdown at Walter Reed and ultimately implement safeguards that will ensure our troops get the care they deserve."

The full text of the letter can be found below.

March 8, 2007

The Honorable Robert M. Gates
United States Secretary of Defense
1600 Army Pentagon
Washington, D.C. 20310

Dear Secretary Gates:

I am writing to address the deplorable conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center.  I appreciate your stated commitment to improving the health care services the military provides to our nation's wounded warriors, which is why I am seeking information regarding the Patient Representative Office at Walter Reed.

As you may be aware, on Monday, I participated in the hearing at Walter Reed as a member of the National Security and Foreign Affairs Subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  Among the most compelling testimony we heard at Monday's hearing was that of Annette McLeod, the wife of National Guardsman Wendell McLeod, who suffered a traumatic head injury in Iraq that led to brain damage.  In her testimony, Mrs. McLeod said, "My life was ripped apart the day my husband was injured. But then, having lived through the mess that I lived through at Walter Reed has been worse than anything I ever sacrificed in my life."

Moreover, Mrs. McLeod, felt that she was abandoned by the military to navigate the highly bureaucratic system and stated that had she not been present to advocate for her husband, he would have simply gotten lost in the system.  Mrs. McLeod noted that those wounded soldiers who have no one to advocate on their behalf will be forgotten and neglected by the system.

Monday's hearing and the recent revelations concerning patient care exposed the need for a strong patient advocacy program.  The responsibility of this program should be to represent soldiers when their caseworkers do not properly address their care.

Because Monday's hearing exposed a glaring need for such a program, I was deeply troubled to discover that Walter Reed Army Medical Center does indeed have a Patient Representative Office, with a stated purpose of advocating for soldiers' needs.  I am extremely concerned that while the office exists, it has clearly failed to carry out its duty to our men and women returning from war.

I, therefore, hope you can respond to this issue by answering the following questions:

  • How are Patient Representatives utilized at Walter Reed?                                                                                                                         
  • How many Patient Representatives are currently employed at Walter Reed?  Of those employees, how many are full-time?
  • What is the current budget for the Patient Representative Office?  How much funding has the office received in each of the past four years?
  • What is the ratio of Patient Representatives to patients?
  • Are Patient Representatives members of the Army, or are they civilian employees?
  • To whom do the Patient Representatives report?
  • What efforts are made to inform patients about the availability of the Patient Representative's services?
  • What is the typical caseload for a Patient Representative?
  • What are the hiring requirements for Patient Representatives?
  • What type of training do Patient Representatives receive?
  • Does a system of evaluation exist for the Patient Representatives? If so, what are the criteria for measuring their performance?

The Veterans Administration acknowledged the importance of this position when Secretary Nicholson announced this week that the VA will hire 100 new patient advocates to represent veterans.  The Department of Defense has yet to follow suit.  The military medical system is clearly in need of a complete overhaul, and patient representatives are only part of this crisis situation.  However, by ensuring more immediate help for wounded soldiers, they would send a signal to our troops that someone will always be there advocating on their behalf.

Therefore, I would appreciate your prompt response to these questions.  While what has happened to these soldiers is deplorable, it sheds light on a broken system that we now have the opportunity to ameliorate.  No soldier should have to fight a war overseas and come home to another battle for adequate care.  I look forward to working together to reform not only Walter Reed, but also our Army's medical services as a whole.


                                        John Yarmuth
                                        Member of Congress