Privatization Behind Disaster at Walter Reed Hospital

The Bush administration’s drive to privatize government services and its push to reduce veterans’ benefits may be the cause of the disaster at Walter Reed Hospital.

Media reports last week exposed conditions in the VA hospital system. Wounded or sick soldiers are often forced to wait months for much needed services. Patients at Walter Reed Hospital have been forced to live in crumbling rooms with rodent feces and mold, according to one story in the Washington Post.

The Army Times is reporting that Rep. Henry A. Waxman, who chairs the House Government Oversight Committee, has subpoenaed the former commander of Walter Reed, Major General George Weightman, to ask him about a leaked memo that points to the privatization of the hospital as the source of many of the problems.

According to the Army Times, the memo described how privatization caused as many as 250 members of the staff to leave in what appears to be a cost-cutting measure.

A company called IAP Worldwide Service, run by a former Halliburton executive, took a $120 million contract to run portions of the hospital’s services called facilities management. Immediately after, facilities management staff was reduced to 50 privately employed workers.

The memo further indicates that Army and Defense Department officials at the highest levels had been made aware of the wretched living conditions at Walter Reed.

Waxman’s committee states that the Pentagon under the Bush administration’s orders has shown 'an ideological commitment to privatize government services' and has consistently sought to replace federal workers with less-skilled, non-unionized, under-trained private staff.

The drive to reduce or gut veterans’ service dates from the beginning of the Bush administration but received a public airing in January 2005 when Pentagon official David Chu ironically told the Wall Street Journal (1-25-05) that the cost of veterans’ benefits was 'hurtful' to national security.

It has long been the policy of the Pentagon to reduce access to services and to mandate that various departments withhold information from veterans about which benefits they may be eligible for. Additionally, the Bush administration has ordered increases in fees for the use of medical benefits to veterans.

So far Gen. Weightman has been fired as head of Walter Reed and the exposure of the scandal has forced Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to pressure Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign.

Privatization has immeasurably damaged thousands of lives of veterans, many returning from the war in Iraq many others having served over the past decades.

Rep. Waxman’s committee needs to expose this situation fully and root out the responsible parties, both in the private sector and the government, no matter how high up the investigation goes.

Without a doubt, the tragedy at Walter Reed and in many VA hospitals mirrors, both ideologically and practically, the administration’s drive to gut funding for disaster preparedness that played a large role in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and its failure to properly respond to the disaster.

We need the full truth about the effect of privatization on veterans' benefits and the VA hospital system, and can't afford to hide behind ideological smokescreens or partisan politics. We also need to know what business or personal relationships motivated the awarding of the Walter Reed facilities management contract to IAP Worldwide Services.