Hagel ups priority of healthcare review

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has upped the priority and speed of a review of the Pentagon's military health system, as the Department of Veterans Affairs comes under increasing fire for delays in care.

Hagel announced the 90-day review earlier this week and on Thursday morning he assigned the Pentagon's No. 2 — Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work — to lead it.

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To assist with the review, Hagel also assigned the acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, as well as the assistant secretary of defense for health, in participation with each military branch's secretary and service chief.

"In addition, Secretary Hagel has asked Deputy Secretary Work to solicit the perspectives of outside experts in the areas of patient safety and quality care," Pentagon press secretary Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby said in a statement Thursday.

Previously, the review was going to be led by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Jonathan Woodson, but the issue was given greater priority following the interim release of a VA inspector general report that confirmed that VA staff tried to hide long wait times for primary care appointments.

Hagel is also requesting regular updates on the review, and said he expects the first update and an action plan by next week, on June 6. The review will focus on access to healthcare, safety of care, and quality of care.

He has requested a final report to be delivered to him no later than Aug. 29.

"To the degree we learn about issues affecting the healthcare of our military health beneficiaries, including active duty service members, retirees, and their eligible family members, we will address them," Kirby said.

Defense officials said the review was prudent, in light of revelations of mistreatment at the VA. However, The New York Times reported earlier this week that the head of the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina was fired over concerns about problems of patient care that included two deaths.

Officials said problems at Womack underscored the need for a review. Three of the center's top deputies were also suspended following the two deaths and "problems with surgical infection control."

"The Department must continue to provide the best available health care to our Service men and women, and their families, who have sacrificed so much on behalf of this Nation. They deserve nothing short of our highest level of effort," Hagel said in a May 28 memo outlining the review.

"Accordingly, I fully expect the Review to lead to Department standards that exceed the national averages in access to, safety, and quality of healthcare," he said.