Waxman to Force Walter Reed Ex-Chief to Talk About Problems, Contract

A powerful Democratic congressman is challenging the Pentagon, which is attempting to block the former chief of Walter Reed Army Medical Center from testifying before Congress next week.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Henry Waxman, D-Calif., wants to ask Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman about a contract to manage the medical center awarded to a company that had documented troubles fulfilling a government contract to deliver ice to victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The Pentagon has refused to allow Weightman to testify. Waxman's staff has confirmed the congressman planned to issue his first subpoena as a committee chairman this session to legally compel Weightman's testimony if the Pentagon did not relent.

According to a letter from Waxman to Weightman posted today on the committee's Web site, the chairman believes the Walter Reed contract may have pushed dozens of health care workers to leave jobs at the troubled medical center, which he says in turn threatened the quality of care for hundreds of military personnel receiving treatment there.

Weightman had been slated to testify before Congress on Monday.  The Army has tried to withdraw him from the hearing.  Waxman's office confirmed the congressman plans to force the officer to appear by issuing a subpoena for his testimony.

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The Army did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter. A call to Weightman's home went unanswered.

In the letter, Waxman charged that the Army used an unusual process to award a five-year, $120 million contract to manage the center to a company owned by a former executive of Halliburton, the scandal-prone government contractor once operated by Vice President Dick Cheney.

In 2004, the Army determined that Walter Reed's federal employees could operate the medical center more efficiently than IAP Worldwide Services, which is operated by the former Halliburton executive, Al Neffgen, Waxman wrote. After IAP protested, the Army "unilaterally" increased the employees' estimated costs by $7 million, making IAP appear cheaper, Waxman said. Rules barred Walter Reed employees from appealing the decision, Waxman wrote, and in January 2006 the Army gave the contract to IAP.

According to an internal memo written by a senior Walter Reed administrator and obtained by Waxman, the decision to outsource to IAP led the center's skilled personnel to leave Walter Reed "in droves," fearing they would be laid off when the contractor took over.  In the last year, Waxman found, over 250 of 300 government employees left the center. The lack of staffing put patient care "at risk of mission failure," warned an internal Army memo obtained by the congressman.

Some of the problems recently revealed at Walter Reed "may be attributable to a lack of skilled government technicians on staff," Waxman wrote in the letter.

In a prepared statement, IAP spokeswoman Arlene Mellinger said that currently "there are no critical shortages of employees or skills in any area" of Walter Reed. On Feb. 4, the first day of its contract, 290 IAP employees were at the center, she said; that number is now 305.  IAP "looks forward to applying its experience and knowledge of facility maintenance" to support Walter Reed, the statement read.

A message left at the home number belonging to IAP head Al Neffgen was not immediately returned.

Update: Since this report was published, the Pentagon has reversed its position and is allowing Weightman to testify before Waxman's panel on Monday. An earlier version of this post stated Waxman had issued a subpoena to compel Weightman's testimony; in fact, Waxman had threatened to do so, but the Pentagon changed its stance before such a subpoena was issued.

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