WASHINGTON - Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the aging hospital heavily criticized for inadequate care of wounded war veterans, should be closed as planned, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.
Gates' conclusion, after a review of Walter Reed by an independent group, runs counter to the recommendation of some in Congress who called recently for the Pentagon to reverse its 2005 decision to close the facility.
The review group, which presented a summary of its conclusions at a Pentagon news conference with Gates, recommended that Walter Reed remain on a list of military facilities to be closed. It also urged that a plan to move the hospital's capabilities to an expanded National Naval Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., be accelerated.
The review group's central finding, released last month, was that money woes and Pentagon neglect were mainly to blame for shoddy outpatient conditions and bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed.
Citing lapses in leadership and oversight, the nine-member independent group concluded that the Pentagon was, or should have been, aware of the widespread problems but neglected them because they knew Walter Reed was scheduled for eventual closure.
Gates said he saw little wisdom in pouring money into Walter Reed to keep it open indefinitely.
"Far better to make an investment in brand-new, 21st-century facilities," he said, referring to the plan announced in 2005 to expand the Bethesda medical center and to build a medical center at Fort Belvoir, Va.
"And how can we accelerate getting those facilities in place?" Gates said. "And how can you keep high-quality staff at Walter Reed, right up until the day that people transfer to one of the other hospitals?"
Based on currently available information, he said, it makes sense to go ahead with the plan to close Walter Reed in 2011.
But he said: "Walter Reed should not be closed unless those other facilities are ready to go, in my opinion."
Gates also announced the formation of a committee of senior military and civilian officials to make sure that recommendations of the review group and those of a presidential commission are promptly implemented.
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