|Brig. Gen. Gary Cheek is urging change.|
Too many soldiers in new care centers, inquiry says
FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. - In a rush to correct reports of substandard care for wounded soldiers, the Army flung open the doors of new specialized treatment centers so wide that as many as half the soldiers currently enrolled do not have injuries serious enough to justify being there, the Associated Press has learned.
Army leaders are putting in place stricter screening procedures to stem the flood of patients overwhelming the units - a move that eventually will target some for closure.
According to interviews and data provided to the AP, the number of patients admitted to the 36 Warrior Transition Units and nine other community-based units jumped from about 5,000 in June 2007, when they began, to a peak of nearly 12,500 in June 2008.
The units provide coordinated medical and mental health care, track soldiers' recovery, and provide broader legal, financial, and other family counseling. They serve Army active-duty and reserve soldiers.
Just 12 percent of the soldiers in the units had battlefield injuries while thousands of others had minor problems that did not require the complex new network of case managers, nurses, and doctors, according to Brigadier General Gary H. Cheek, the director of the Army's warrior care office.
The crowding was a "self-inflicted wound," said Cheek, an assistant surgeon general. "We're dedicating this kind of oversight and management where, truthfully, only half of those soldiers really needed this."
Cheek said it is difficult to tell how many patients eventually will be in the units. But he said soldiers currently admitted will not be tossed out if they do not meet the new standards. Instead, the tighter screening will weed out the population over time.
"We're trying to change it back" to serve patients who have more serious or multiple injuries that require about six months or more of coordinated treatment, he said.
By restricting use of the coordinated care units to soldiers with more complex, long-term ailments, the Army hopes to close or consolidate as many as 10 of the transition units, Cheek said during an interview in his Virginia office near the Pentagon.
In the past, a soldier with a torn knee ligament would have surgery and then go on light duty, such as answering phones, while getting physical therapy. But last October, the Army began allowing soldiers with less serious injuries to go to the warrior units.
The expansion came after reports about conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, including shoddy housing and bureaucratic delays for outpatients there.
Brigade commanders began shipping to the transition centers anyone in their unit who could not deploy because of an injury of illness. That burdened the system with soldiers who really did not need case managers to set up their appointments, nurses to check their medications, and specialists to provide counseling for issues such as stress disorders.
The Army's goal now, as spelled out in a recent briefing, is to screen out those who do not need the expanded care program, shifting them to regular medical facilities at their military base or near their homes.