March 16, 2007 — -- A congressional investigation is under way to see if Walter Reed Army Medical Center is funding a well-appointed ward for lawmakers and other VIPs at the expense of soldiers, following disclosures of dilapidated facilities and excessive red tape at the nation's premier hospital for wounded troops.
John Tierney, D-Mass., chairman of the House National Security Subcommittee, has asked the Army to detail its funding for Walter Reed's Ward 72 -- well known for its antique furniture, carpeted floors, gleaming china, flat-screen TVs and hospital workers who escort members of Congress, Cabinet members, foreign dignitaries and their families to their medical appointments.
Former Sen. Strom Thurmond spent much of his final year in the posh ward, but the only troops permitted to stay there are Medal of Honor recipients.
"If there is money that's going for extraordinary amenities at the expense of people who are coming back disabled, certainly I'd be bothered by that," Tierney told ABC News. "My only concern is whether or not there is money that ought to be spent more wisely or more appropriately for people who are returning injured from the battlefield."
The special treatment in Ward 72, including added security and privacy, is a far cry from the treatment Brady Van Engelen said he received after he was shot in the head in Iraq in 2004.
"People want me to talk about the mice and the mold. They see that as the problem when it isn't the problem. The problem lies much much deeper than that," Van Engelen recently told ABC's David Kerley. "There's so much red tape. Soldiers are stuck there for so long, it does become a depressing groundhog day, if you will. … The regulations clearly state that I'm not fit for duty, but it took them six months to discover that."
Tierney told ABC News that if he found the funding "inappropriate" for the VIP ward, he would pursue a hearing specifically on the unit or seek some other corrective action.
Army officials said it costs just under $1 million a year to run the ward, or about two-tenths of 1 percent of Walter Reed's cost. That includes salaries for seven contract and civilian employees but not medical staff, who are paid by the hospital's general fund.
According to Army regulations, charges for outpatient care at the unit are waived for qualified officials, the Army said in a statement. Members of Congress are charged for inpatient care at the "full reimbursement rate."
"Clearly, if he's contacted our legislative liaison, we will put together the information that he's requested," Army spokesman Paul Boyce said of Tierney's request.
Tierney said it's difficult to divvy up funding for the ward because some money comes from a private foundation and, presumably, from insurers of the patients who stay there.
Recent disclosures recounting mold, mice, peeling paint, walls with holes in them at Walter Reed, as well as a nightmarish bureaucracy that in some cases left patients struggling to receive care, have cost some high-profile Army officials their jobs. Army Secretary Francis Harvey was forced to resign by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who was dissatisfied with Harvey's response to the Walter Reed disclosures, first made public in a series of stories in The Washington Post.
The Army also fired Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, the hospital's top administrator. And Lt. Gen. Kevin Kiley, a former Walter Reed administrator, was fired as the Army's surgeon general after being briefly assigned to oversee the hospital again.
Weightman was head of Walter Reed for only about six months. He came to the hospital in late August, after serving as commander of the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
A series of investigations -- by the White House, the Department of Defense, the Army, the Navy and congressional panels -- is ongoing.
The Army said earlier this month that within the next 30 days its own internal review would focus on accountability to the hospital's soldier patients, health and welfare, infrastructure, a much criticized medical administrative process and information dissemination. The Army is separately cooperating with a larger Pentagon review, due in April. Among those offering legislation to correct problems at Walter Reed are 2008 Democratic presidential rivals Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y.