Hit & Run

Does Privatization Hurt the Troops?

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The Washington Post reports on more veterans reporting crappy medical care in their far-flung hospitals, all the information tumbling forth in the wake of the Walter Reed scandal.

Across the country, some military quarters for wounded outpatients are in bad shape, according to interviews, Government Accountability Office reports and transcripts of congressional testimony. The mold, mice and rot of Walter Reed's Building 18 compose a familiar scenario for many soldiers back from Iraq or Afghanistan who were shipped to their home posts for treatment. Nearly 4,000 outpatients are currently in the military's Medical Holding or Medical Holdover companies, which oversee the wounded. Soldiers and veterans report bureaucratic disarray similar to Walter Reed's: indifferent, untrained staff; lost paperwork; medical appointments that drop from the computers; and long waits for consultations.

Sandy Karen was horrified when her 21-year-old son was discharged from the Naval Medical Center in San Diego a few months ago and told to report to the outpatient barracks, only to find the room swarming with fruit flies, trash overflowing and a syringe on the table. "The staff sergeant says, 'Here are your linens' to my son, who can't even stand up," said Karen, of Brookeville, Md. "This kid has an open wound, and I'm going to put him in a room with fruit flies?" She took her son to a hotel instead.

It provides more context to this Raw Story report, which claims that Walter Reed's problems can be partially traced back to a half-assed privatization.

A five-year, $120 million contract awarded to a firm run by a former executive from Halliburton – a multi-national corporation where Vice President Dick Cheney once served as CEO – will be probed at a Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs hearing scheduled for Monday.

"We have learned that in January 2006, Walter Reed awarded a five-year $120 million contract to a company called IAP Worldwide Services for base operations support services, including facilities management," Waxman continues. "IAP is one of the companies that experienced problems delivering ice during the response to Hurricane Katrina."

It was only a year or so ago that congresspeople were outraged, outraged that Walter Reed might be closed. Too bad they worked over the symbolism of the facility without checking out the conditions inside. Still, the important issue here is whether the government knows how to contract out services without making an incredible hash out of everything. Jim Henley:

Basically, if it's a situation where the service has many buyers and the new private entity will have to sell to them, presume in favor of privatization. But if the new arrangement would have a private corporation selling to one buyer, the government, presume that the "prvatized" situation would suck much, much worse than good old fashioned bureaucracy.

This seems completely true.