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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Bush's Kind of Guy

When the Walter Reed scandal broke in February, everyone seemed surprised that veterans were being kept in squalor and treated like warehoused goods. Dr. William Winkenwerder Jr., the assistant defense secretary who oversees veterans' care, said, "This news caught me -- as it did many other people -- completely by surprise." But it was pretty obvious that everyone couldn't possibly be surprised and heads started to roll. A series of fall guys -- including Winkenwerder -- were thrown out until the scandal had died down.

Now, Salon shows us that not only was the Dept. of Defense aware of conditions at Walter Reed, they were actually tracking them.

...[T]he Defense Department had been conducting monthly focus group discussions with soldiers treated at Walter Reed since before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had even begun, and that it continued to do so as wounded veterans of those conflicts arrived at the facility. The interviews with outpatients were set up to monitor Army healthcare and provide military officials with direct information about it.

"They were trying to find out the good and the bad and the ugly," said a former Defense Department official familiar with the DoD focus groups. "That is the good-news story. The bad-news story is they did not do anything about it."

In fact, the VA was aware of problems as early as 2004. At that point, these focus groups showed problems, with patients and families saying they were 'frustrated, confused, sometimes angry,' about the care offered at Walter Reed.

"I was in a wheelchair and they expected me to push myself all the way over to Building 11," the report quotes a vet as saying. "One hand was in a bandage and one leg I couldn't use and they wanted me to push myself around the post ... It just became more of a hassle and my mom did it."

Top VA officials were involved in the focus groups studies. One official was Michael Kussman, then the acting deputy undersecretary for health and co-chair of the task force that produced the report. Kussman, like so many Bush administration officials, has been rewarded for screwing things up royally.

White House, 4/4/07:

The President intends to nominate Michael J. Kussman, of Massachusetts, to be Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs, for a four-year term. Dr. Kussman currently serves as Principal Deputy Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs. On August 12, 2006 he assumed the role of Acting Under Secretary for Health at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Earlier in his career, he served as Chief of Patient Care Services at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Dr. Kussman retired from the United States Army in September of 2000, having reached the final rank of Brigadier General. Dr. Kussman received his bachelor's degree and his MD from Boston University. He also received his master's degree from Salve Regina University.

In a letter to the president, Sen. Barack Obama writes, "If the servicemembers' comments in the focus group report were conveyed to top VA leaders as reported by Salon, then the question is why Dr. Kussman did not act more aggressively with the Defense Department to address these serious concerns... Before the Senate proceeds to confirm Dr. Kussman in this new role, we owe due diligence to our recovering servicemembers and veterans to get to the bottom of these serious allegations."

Of course, as far as Bush is concerned, this whole Walter Reed thing is over and done with. He did what he always does; put together a blue ribbon panel to investigate -- this one led by former Sen. Bob Dole and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala -- which he plans to completely ignore. Like the 9/11 Commission and the Iraq Study group, he's put together a panel that's guaranteed to waste very able peoples' time. In the end, he'll ignore the recommendations. It's putting together the panel that solves the problem since -- in Bush's mind, at least -- all problems are PR problems. They're not solved by investigations, study, and actual changes, but with a press release saying there will be investigations, study, and actual changes. That way, no one actually has to do anything.

Which, if you think about it, makes Kussman his kind of guy. He studied the living crap out of the conditions at Walter Reed and didn't do a damned thing about it.


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