Attendance has been uneven at patient town hall meetings conducted as part of an ongoing review of the military health system, but employee response has been high, Defense Department officials said this week.
Nearly 500 patients attended town hall meetings at six installations in the past 10 days, with the largest turnouts at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington state — 190 — and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia, 150.
But no one showed up at Naval Medical Center San Diego — one of the Navy’s largest health facilities — while only about 50 showed up for the event at the Air Force Academy Clinic in Colorado.
The meetings are part of a review ordered in May by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on quality of care, access and safety in the military health system.
Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work is leading the review, with support from the offices of the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, the services and the service surgeons general.
A report and recommendations are due to Hagel by Aug. 29.
When the review was announced, DoD officials said Hagel had been considering the audit in the wake of the scandal at the Veterans Affairs Department over patient appointment scheduling and wait times.
However, it is unclear if the May firing of the Womack Army Medical Center commander in North Carolina, or a year-long investigation into military hospital safety by the New York Times — published in part on Sunday — played roles in launching the review.
The New York Times reported that the military hospital system has a record of avoidable errors higher than many civilian systems and faces little scrutiny, oversight or consequences related to hospital mishaps.
The article included cases and statistics of severe harm or death caused by provider error that were not investigated or went unreported to the Pentagon’s patient safety center.
Among the biggest problems, according to the story, were a history of problems in maternity care and surgery.
According to records obtained by the Times, babies born at military hospitals — more than 50,000 a year — are twice as likely to be injured during delivery than newborns nationwide.
The report cited a “steady stream” of errors throughout the system, saying half the 16 largest hospitals had higher than expected rates of complications in a recent 12-month period.
Facilities with the highest rates of surgical complications include: Madigan, San Diego, Womack and Fort Belvoir; San Antonio Military Medical Center, Texas; Portsmouth Naval Hospital, Virginia; Evans Army Community Hospital, Colorado; and Mike O’Callaghan Federal Medical Center, Nevada.
As part of the 90-day review ordered by Hagel, a DoD team is visiting seven sites and holding patient and employee town hall meetings. The Pentagon has left it to the individual facilities to publicize the events.
A Fort Belvoir spokesman said the community hospital sent emails to its patients through the Relay Health information system and posted a notice on its Facebook page.
But a Tricare beneficiary who works for the Navy Department and whose spouse is seen at Belvoir said they were both unaware of the meeting until they read about it in Navy Times.
“Of course, [the meeting] is during working hours and kicks off [in] six hours. NO NOTICE AT ALL. How are we supposed to be heard if they don’t even tell us that they want/need to hear about military health care issues?” wrote the beneficiary in an email to the Military Times newspapers.
The team is considering returning to San Diego, given the lack of attendance at the first meeting there.
A town hall meeting also is scheduled for the week of July 7 at RAF Lakenheath Air Force Hospital in England.
Neither the patient nor provider town halls have been open to the media. A Fort Belvoir Community Hospital spokesman said the team conducting the town halls wanted attendees to be able to speak freely.
Staff writer Karen Jowers contributed to this story.