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Military panel reviews National Navy hospital conditions

BETHESDA – Relatives of wounded troops at the National Naval Medical Center had few complaints Wednesday about treatment at the military hospital, while staffers warned of heavy workloads treating the injured and poor conditions at some facilities on the base.

During nearly two hours of testimony at the suburban Washington facility, a task force studying conditions at the Navy hospital and nearby Walter Reed Army Medical Center heard mostly praise for the medical care, but also fears from some families that care will drop off as wounded veterans move through the health system.

One woman described abysmal treatment for her husband at a veterans hospital after leaving the Navy hospital, while a father said he feared his son suffering from a traumatic brain injury would face a lengthy processing to get benefits when he is discharged.

‘I’m worried about Johnny coming back and getting lost in the paper work,’ said Tom Jones, whose son, John Jones, suffered a traumatic brain injury in February during a roadside bomb explosion in Iraq.

The 10-member panel, appointed by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, is reviewing conditions at the Navy hospital and nearby Walter Reed following reports of bureaucratic problems and shoddy living quarters for wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. The group is expected to report back to Gates in mid-April.

While many soldiers have complained about conditions at Walter Reed, there have been few reports about the Navy hospital, which has treated hundreds of mostly Marines wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Bethesda campus is scheduled to be the site of a new military medical center when Walter Reed closes as part of the military’s base realignment and closure plans. Some lawmakers, however, have proposed that Walter Reed’s Washington campus remain open, blaming confusion from the base closure process for some of the poor conditions.

Wednesday’s testimony was a marked contrast to grievances aired Tuesday during a similar session at Walter Reed, according to panel members. Families and soldiers there largely praised the medical care, but expressed frustration with navigating the bureaucracy of the military medical system.

Most of the handful of families who spoke at the Navy hospital said the Navy and Marines had been very helpful with their needs.

Panel members said little about what conclusions they will draw in their report, but indicated more needs to be done to take care of patient needs when they leave inpatient care at the two military medical hospitals.

Togo West, a former secretary of the Army, noted some of the problems might have to do with high numbers of outpatients whose needs go ignored.

‘The Army has to solve the issue on how they can track the 700 or 800,’ he said of the patient loads at Walter Reed.

The panel also heard from several Navy hospital staffers Wednesday, some of whom described the strain of caring for the wounded. Longer hours and overly burdensome administrative responsibilities limit the quality of care medical staff can provide, said Brand Rice, a Navy doctor.

‘I would use the word compassion fatigue to represent some of these providers,’ Rice said.

Sandra Bonifant, a civilian contractor studying Vietnam veterans with head injuries, detailed mold and standing water in the building she uses at the base. She said some of the veterans are housed in buildings that are not handicapped accessible and that complaints about bug infestations and heat problems went largely unheeded.

‘These are legit Vietnam veterans who gave their brains for the country,’ she said.