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Furloughs delay patient care at military centers

| Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 7:33 p.m.

Patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and other premiere military hospitals are being sent to private doctors and having surgery and other treatment delayed because of furloughs to medical personnel, according to interviews and internal documents.

“Please show (patients) the utmost understanding and care while we are asking them to accept longer wait times and in some cases, curtailed or limited services,” Rear Adm. Alton Stocks, hospital commander, told staff in a July 12 message.

A “colleagues” memo issued in recent days says inpatient beds are in “critically short supply” because of furloughs of civilian staff triggered by federal spending cuts known as sequestration.

The memo encourages “dispositions/discharges as soon as possible.” Hospital spokesperson Sandy Dean explained this direction, saying, “We are encouraging health care providers to be more efficient when handling their paperwork instead of writing discharge orders later in the day. ... No patient has been or will be discharged before it is medically appropriate.”

With cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health problems at an all-time high, Dean says civilian caregivers in the hospital's in-patient mental health section are furloughed, reducing beds there from 28 to 22.

Most serious combat wounded and other medical cases are given priority as routine treatments are delayed, officials said.

Military families complain on the National Military Family Association website of waiting longer for medical appointments, immunizations for infants and getting someone to answer the phone at small medical clinics.

Similar cutbacks occurring across military medicine are “definitely impacting our ability to deliver health care,” said Maj. Gen. Richard Thomas, commander of 11 Army hospitals in the western United States. Just in the first month of furloughs, 10,000 routine patient appointments in the western Army medical region have been delayed because of staffing shortages, Thomas says.

The Pentagon's top medical official, Jonathan Woodson, assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs, called the cuts illogical and a significant threat.

“We simply cannot continue to sustain the burdens placed on the military medical system if sequester remains the law of the land,” Woodson says. “The men and women who have fought tirelessly on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan ... deserve much, much more than this.”

Thomas said that by sending patients to a network of private doctors who contract with the government for services, the Pentagon will spend more money in order to compensate for the automatic spending cuts.

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