By Gregg Zoroya
WASHINGTON � The Pentagon effort to consolidate two premier hospitals for treating wounded troops has more than doubled in price and is so rudderless that an independent review and a bipartisan group of legislators say the care could suffer.
The cost of closing Walter Reed Army Medical Center, replacing it with a larger complex at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., and building a hospital at Fort Belvoir, Va., has risen from $1 billion to $2.6 billion, Pentagon records show.
Correcting the problems raised by Congress will cost $781 million more, according to a Pentagon report released Monday. And improvements must wait until after the new Bethesda facility � named the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center � is finished in September 2011, the report says.
The independent review last year found that, without improvements, the center would lack an adequate number of operating rooms and some would be too small to accommodate the latest surgical technology. There would not be enough single-patient rooms, critical for controlling infections.
The center will not be "world-class" as Congress envisioned, legislators say. "Wounded warrior care will suffer," they wrote to the Pentagon in a January letter made public last week.
A key problem is that no one person is in charge of the project, according to the review done by a panel of the advisory Defense Health Board.
"(It's) a very simple issue. Someone has to be in charge," Kenneth Kizer, a former Department of Veterans Affairs official who led the review, told Congress last year.
A bill introduced last month by a bipartisan group of House Armed Services Committee members would place the deputy Defense secretary, William Lynn, in charge of the project. It would also budget another $400 million to make the new complex in Bethesda a "world-class medical facility."
In 2007, Walter Reed was rocked by scandal over poor care of wounded troops, and lawmakers said they don't want that to happen again.
"Our concerns need to be addressed," said Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., a co-author of the bill that would reorganize the project's management.
"We would prefer that the Department of Defense come up with its own solution to ensure that we see a world-class center," Rep. Susan Davis, D-Calif, said. "But until we have the confidence that's going to happen, Congress will need to take action."
The Pentagon's top medical officer said last week that care of wounded troops will not suffer when the new Walter Reed center opens.
"We are going to achieve a facility for which the nation can be justifiably proud," said Charles Rice, the acting assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs.
Rice said the Pentagon is giving broader operational control over the project to its current commander, Navy Vice Adm. John Mateczun.