Walter Reed Scandal Grows

Ken AshfordHealth Care, Republicans, War on Terrorism/TortureLeave a Comment

The Walter Reed scandal sheds a spotlight on the basic difference between conservatives and progressives.

The conservative’s mantra is that government is necessarily bad, and it can’t do anything right.

The progressive’s mantra is that government can do good things, if we just permit it to.

Of course, when conservatives control the agencies of government, their mantra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Take, for example, FEMA — a model government agency under Clinton.  It was well-staffed by knowledgeable people.  It was effective.  Then came Bush.  FEMA was cut in influence and manpower, and a person with no experience was left to run it.  And when disaster struck New Orleans, the incompetence was there for all to see.

The same thing again is happening with Walter Reed.  An Army study showed that the government was better at operating the facility.  But the Bush team came in and privatized the whole operation, handing it over to the public sector.  Not just anybody either, but to a company run by a former Halliburton official.  From the Army Times:

The Committee on Oversight and Government Reform has subpoenaed Maj. Gen. George Weightman, who was fired as head of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, after Army officials refused to allow him to testify before the committee Monday.

Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and subcommittee Chairman John Tierney asked Weightman to testify about an internal memo that showed privatization of services at Walter Reed could put “patient care services at risk of mission failure.”

The memorandum “describes how the Army’s decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was causing an exodus of ‘highly skilled and experienced personnel,’” the committee’s letter states. “According to multiple sources, the decision to privatize support services at Walter Reed led to a precipitous drop in support personnel at Walter Reed.”

The letter said Walter Reed also awarded a five-year, $120-million contract to IAP Worldwide Services, which is run by Al Neffgen, a former senior Halliburton official.

The letter said the Defense Department “systemically” tried to replace federal workers at Walter Reed with private companies for facilities management, patient care and guard duty – a process that began in 2000.

As Matt Yglesias explains today, privatizing is not some sort of magical ritual that automatically results in goodness and light. Indeed, when it comes to government services it is just a plain old patronage machine that delivers to the favored politicians at the expense of the people:

I posted on the general problem here last month — it’s not as if there are dozens of United States Armies all competing against one another to run the best hospitals and choosing among a variety of suppliers of hospital services in a dynamic marketplace where the Army that runs a bad hospital goes out of business.

You’ve got private profits, private corporations, privatization, and all sorts of other private stuff, but you don’t have a market you have a patronage mill and you have suffering soldiers. The correct way to privatize government services if you don’t think they should be provided by the government is to just have the government not perform the service. If it’s something you think the government should provide — medical care for injured soldiers would be, I think, an uncontroversial case — then the government needs to provide it.

This, again, shows what’s wrong with Republicans running government. Their policies have now been proved to be terminally flawed in virtually every area of responsibility. The mess at Walter Reed, like the Katrina response, shows what happens when you put people who are disposed to hating government in charge of government.  This one, like so many others, has ripped off taxpayers to the tune of billions of dollars that went directly into the pockets of well-heeled GOP contributors and average American have suffered for it.

UPDATE:  Well, at least one conservative is singing the right tune on this — Dean Barnett:

As far as the Bush administration is concerned, longtime supporters (like myself) can only be shaking their heads in dismay and disgust over this scandal unless they’ve instead opted to man the partisan barricades. Taking care of our veterans, especially at a time of war, should have been a top priority. Being the flagship of all military hospitals, one would have thought that Walter Reed was providing outstanding service.

As has been the case too often with the Bush administration, we can only wonder how this has happened. Surely taking care of our veterans and recently returning soldiers was a priority for the administration. But if those were ranking priorities, how could the administration have done such a wretched job of tending to them?

For the Bush administration, the only available explanations for the disgrace at Walter Reed are that tending to our wounded veterans was a low priority, or that tending to our wounded veterans was a high priority and yet the administration was too inept to get it right.

Neither scenario puts the administration in a positive light.

One nice thing about having Democratic control of Congress is that they can — finally — look into these things.

UPDATE:  Obama steps up to the plate.