U.S. Army Staff Sgt. John Daniel Shannon belongs to a government-run health-care program. He discovered how it works after he was shot in Iraq.
In 2004, Shannon told a House subcommittee on Monday, his unit was operating in Ramadi, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq. A bullet fired from an insurgent’s AK-47 struck him in the head, injuring his brain and destroying his left eye.
Three days later, he was admitted to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which is in Washington, D.C., only a few miles from the White House and Capitol.
Given the strong public sentiment for supporting our troops, and given the rhetoric from politicians about their passion for doing so, you might think this health-care facility would be run with military efficiency.
At issue is not the excellent surgical and nursing care our wounded warriors receive in the battle zones or when they first arrive at Walter Reed. State-of-the-art care at that stage in the military health-care system has saved servicemen and women who might have died in previous wars. At issue is what happens next.
Shannon moved through the main hospital at Walter Reed in two days. He has been an outpatient assigned to Mologne House, an Army-run hotel at the Walter Reed complex, for two years.
Shannon needed to stay at Mologne House as an outpatient not only to undergo further medical procedures to rebuild his face, install a prosthetic eye and treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but also to undergo the bureaucratic processes called the Medical Evaluation Board (MEB) and the Physical Evaluation Board (PEB), which will formally determine whether he should be medically retired from the Army and what benefits he is due as a soldier disabled on duty.
Testifying at the subcommittee hearing, which was held at Walter Reed, Shannon said, "I want to go home."
From the start, this government health-care system has mishandled his outpatient care. It discharged him from the hospital when he was still disoriented, giving him a "photocopied map" so he could find his way alone — on stumbling feet — to the hotel. It let him sit idly in his room for two weeks because his case manager could not locate him. It forced him to file masses of paperwork. (Washington Post reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull, who broke the story about Shannon and the mismanagement of outpatient care at Walter Reed, reported that soldiers moving through the process are required to fill out 22 different documents filed with eight different commands.)
After a number of months, Shannon testified, Walter Reed had to restart his MEB process because it lost his paperwork. This January, he was told his MEB and PEB needed to be suspended until he finally undergoes the plastic surgery he needs and is fitted with a prosthetic eye.
It is as if he were in a time machine that keeps taking him back to the start of his ordeal. "I’m hearing the same things about the process that I heard when I first began two years ago," he said.
He now believes the government runs the system for its own benefit, not for the patient’s benefit. "We have almost no advocacy that is not working for the government," he said. "My physical evaluation councilor and the MEB/PEB process both worked for the government and have its interest, not our interest, in mind, in my opinion." Shannon’s case, and others like it, points to a dereliction of duty by the elected leaders at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. How could they not have discovered, and fixed, what was happening just down the road on Georgia Avenue?
But the scandal at Walter Reed should also send a warning to private citizens whose security and freedom Staff Sgt. Shannon sacrificed so much to defend: Never let government control your health care. Already, the three leading Democratic presidential candidates — Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and former Sen. John Edwards — have vowed that they will enact a "universal" health insurance program. Such a program, of course, cannot be created without government mandates and subsidies, which mean government control.
Head that way, and eventually we will all find ourselves waiting in line for treatment that never comes in the civilian version of the Walter Reed outpatient program. Unlike Shannon, and the other heroes at Walter Reed, however, we will not have purchased the bureaucrats’ indifference with blood shed on a battlefield.