WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Defense Department has backed off a proposal to cut services at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, less than a month after releasing the plan, Army officials said Wednesday.
The Pentagon comptroller's recommendation to downsize Eisenhower and 40 other military medical facilities across the country was rejected by higher-ranking officials from all of the service branches, primarily because of its potential effects on military families and retirees, said Maj. Tom Rheinlander, an Army spokesman.
"The swiftness with which this was gone would be a fair indication of the attention that was given to this proposal," he said.
The multi-year plan called for downgrading Eisenhower, now headquarters for the military's Southeast Regional Medical Command, to an Army community hospital by Sept. 30, 2002. It was never clear how the cuts would have affected services at the 176-bed center, but Army officials said they expected to save an estimated $25 million per year.
It took about a week for news of the comptroller's recommendation to surface. But once the word was out, the Augusta area's congressional delegation leaped to oppose the plan.
"Eisenhower is not just a hospital for the military, but a regional hospital," said U.S. Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga. "It does and offers procedures for our retirees as well as our active-duty military (personnel)."
During a visit to Augusta last week, U.S. Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., said it would make no sense for the Pentagon to interfere with Eisenhower. Mr. Cleland, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the center has become a model of efficiency in military health care through its sharing agreements with the Medical College of Georgia and the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Centers.
The comptroller's plan also drew sharp criticism from veterans organizations. In a time of budget constraints, those groups are worried that military retirees are being pushed aside by active-duty personnel in the competition for shrinking health-care services.
"The more hospitals they close or downsize, the worse it is for us," said Virginia Torsch, assistant director of health affairs for The Retired Officers Association.
A Senate aide who has followed the issue said the downsizing proposal was poorly timed, with the Defense Department still struggling to figure out how to fulfill the military's traditional promise of free lifetime health care for soldiers without busting the budget.
The Pentagon has been experimenting with managed care for retirees older than 65, and is about to launch a limited demonstration project to have Medicare pick up some military health care costs. Some veterans groups are pushing an option to cover military retirees under the same health plan offered to civilian federal retirees.
"Some (military) hospitals may need to be downsized at some point," the aide said. "But right now, no consensus has been built around what should be done in the long term."
John Stone, a spokesman for Dr. Norwood, said the Pentagon also must have felt the political heat generated by the outcry the plan produced in the affected areas.
"You can't help but feel this was a trial balloon to see what the public reaction would be," Mr. Stone said. "They took a look at that and said, `Is this a battle we want to fight? No.' "