Thursday, August 25, 2005

Walter Reed Medical Center to Be Closed

Yahoo! News
Walter Reed Medical Center to Be Closed

By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer

A federal commission voted to close Walter Reed Army Medical Center — the crown jewel of U.S. military hospitals — as it began its second day of decision-making on the Pentagon's sweeping proposal to restructure bases across the country.

Located in the nation's capital, the century-old hospital has treated presidents and foreign leaders as well as veterans and soldiers, including those returning from the Iraq war.

Most of its work would be relocated to a more modern, expanded hospital in Bethesda, Md., to be renamed Walter Reed in a nod to the old facility's heritage.

The nine-member panel was deciding the fate of a host of big-ticket items Thursday. Later in the day it was to begin debating the Air Force's plans, arguably the most contentious of the group, as it steamrolled through hundreds of Pentagon proposals at a brisk pace after four months of study and preparation.

Among decisions earlier Thursday, the commission voted to close the Brooks City-Base in Texas, which is home to the School of Aerospace Medicine. Tang, the orange drink created for astronauts, was developed at the base in the 1960s. The medical school will relocate to Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

Endorsing the Pentagon's vision of streamlining support services across the armed forces, the commission also signed off on recommendations to merge several education, medical and training programs. The Defense Department calls this "jointness" — the services combining their strengths, rather than working separately, to save money and promote efficiency.

Under the Walter Reed plan, most of the staff and services would move from the old hospital's main post to the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, to create the expanded facility. The remaining personnel and operations would move to a community hospital at Fort Belvoir in Virginia.

Walter Reed's care is considered first-rate but the facility is showing its age, the commission found.

"Kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan, all of them in harm's way, deserve to come back to 21st century medical care," Commission Chairman Anthony Principi said Thursday, adding that the hospital is old. "It needs to be modernized."

One-time costs, including construction and renovations, would total $989 million. The Pentagon would save $301 million over 20 years, the commission said. The current hospital has about 185 beds, but the expanded facility would have 340.

Principi said he expected to finish all voting no later than Friday, a day earlier than planned. The commission must send its final report to President Bush by Sept. 8.

The president can accept it, reject it, or send it back to the commission for revisions. Congress also will have a chance to veto the plan in its entirety but it has not taken that step in four previous rounds of base closings. If ultimately approved, the changes would occur over the next six years.

On Wednesday, the panel breezed through proposals to shutter hundreds of small and large facilities in all corners of the country, moving ahead of its schedule.

After finishing the joint-service proposals, the commission was moving next to the Air Force plan, much of which includes recommendations to shake up the Air National Guard, a highly controversial effort. The Air Force also proposes closing both Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota and Cannon Air Force Base in New Mexico.

"We're doing some very large muscle movements," Gen. Gary Heckman, a top Air Force official who helped lead the service's base-closing analysis team, said in an interview.

He said his service branch wasn't hit in previous rounds of closures as hard as the Army and Navy because overhauling the Air Force's structure — which is what has been proposed this time around — is very difficult.

Ellsworth's proposed closing has caused the most political consternation because Sen. John Thune, a freshman senator, had argued during the 2004 campaign that he — rather his Democratic opponent, then-Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle — would be in a better position to save the facility. Nonetheless, it showed up on the Pentagon's closure list.

Closing Cannon would cost Clovis, N.M., a small town on the Texas-New Mexico line, nearly 3,000 jobs.

Overall, the Pentagon has proposed closing or consolidating a record 62 major military bases and 775 smaller installations to save $48.8 billion over 20 years, streamline the services and reposition the armed forces.

Since the Pentagon announced its proposal in May, commissioners had voiced concerns about several parts of it, including the estimate of how much money would be saved.

By far, the most controversy — both on the commission and off — has surrounded the Air Force.

Most of its proposals cover the Air National Guard and would shift people, equipment and aircraft around at 54 or more sites where Guard units are stationed.

Aircraft would be taken away from 25 Air National Guard units. Instead of flying missions, those units would get other missions such as expeditionary combat support roles. They also would retain their state missions of aiding governors during civil disturbances and natural disasters.

Several states have sued to stop the shake-up, the commission itself has voiced concern that the plan would compromise homeland security, and the Justice Department was brought in to settle arguments over whether the Pentagon could relocate Air National Guard units without a governor's consent. The ruling said it could.

The Pentagon says the Air Force proposals are designed to make the service more effective by consolidating both weapons systems and personnel, given that it will have a smaller but smarter aircraft fleet in the future.


On the Net:

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