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Welch to take part in probe of Walter Reed hospital

By Shay Totten | Vermont Guardian

Posted February 26, 2007

COLCHESTER — Vermont’s lone congressman met Monday with several veterans and medical staff at the Veterans Administration outpatient clinic to help improve the care being received by soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Within days of a scathing report in The Washington Post about poor conditions in one building at Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital Welch requested a Congressional hearing, preferably to be held at the medical center.

In a letter to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-CA, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Welch said, “It is clear from these reports on outpatient care that the United States is not meeting its obligation to our injured veterans. Furthermore, this brings to focus that the president's budget is not committing the financial resources necessary to maintain the veterans services required.

“We have an obligation to our troops. They reported for duty when called. It is now our country's obligation to provide them with the services they need,” Welch added.

In the Post report, the conditions at the hospital included leaky plumbing, mold, mouse droppings, and a broken elevator, among other findings.

In response to Welch’s letter, the panel’s Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, chaired by Rep. John Tierney, D-MA, will hold a hearing on March 5. Tierney informed Waxman of his intentions today in a letter. He also hopes to hold the hearing on the grounds of the medical center, a suggestion he took from Welch and from Rep. Chris Shays, R-CT, the subcommittees ranking Republican.

“By doing so, members of the subcommittee will be able to visit and to speak with wounded soldiers who are currently rehabilitating and seeking continuing treatment onsite, as well as to gain unfettered access to view the building and living conditions on the campus for themselves,” wrote Tierney.

At that hearing, Welch said he plans on asking how the conditions reported in the Post article could be allowed to occur. He believes the Bush administration did not adequately plan for the amount of wounded soldiers coming home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

In a meeting with officials from the Veterans Administration clinic in Colchester, along with several veterans who joined the discussion, Welch asked what questions he should ask.

Several staff said Welch should focus on what levels of communication occurred between staff and administrators about the conditions, or from patients to staff.

“They need to change the culture in the system that allows the people who were working in those conditions to not report them,” said Michael Upton, a mental health counselor at the VA. “At the VA we’ve always had good facilities and services and those kinds of conditions would not be tolerate.”

Another staff member added that if those reports were made by staff and patients, but were swept under the rug, that should be of even greater concern in terms of the communication breakdown she fears may have occurred.

“My focus in being here is to get information and hear from folks working here, and the veterans, so when I get back to Washington and we take up the issue of quality care to vets and the budget, we make sure that we can provide you with the resources you need to do your job,” said Welch.

Though Walter Reed is run by the Department of Defense, and not the VA, Welch is concerned that it is a precursor to what could happen in the VA system if current budget cuts are allowed to go through. The Bush administration has proposed a 2 percent budget cut to the VA, and many veterans will be asked to pay more out of pocket to receive care through higher co-pays.

“That is just unacceptable,” said Welch.

One veteran, a retired Marine Richard Gorbarczyk who served in Vietnam and who drives to the Colchester clinic from Montreal, told Welch that it shouldn’t matter what war they served in, vets should receive the same level of care and treatment.