- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The House today will vote on a measure to keep Walter Reed Army Medical Center from closing by 2011 as planned.

Congress agreed in 2005 to close the hospital when it approved the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Commission report. It concluded that operating Walter Reed less than 10 miles from the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda was a waste of resources.

But now House members are vowing to keep Walter Reed open because they don’t expect the two facilities slated to absorb the medical center’s wounded soldiers to be finished in time. Several also said the hospital’s impending closure contributed to poor conditions some wounded soldiers faced there.

They added an amendment to the emergency funding bill for the war in Iraq stipulating that no federal money can be used to close Walter Reed. That would essentially deny federal funding for a federally mandated project.

“There were a lot of decisions made as a part of BRAC that shouldn’t have been, and this is one of them,” said Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat who voted against BRAC in 2005. “One of the reasons [Walter Reed] was allowed to deteriorate was because it was supposed to be closed. We have to have somewhere better before we close it.”

Construction has not started on a $2 billion expansion at the naval hospital or a new $475 million hospital at Fort Belvoir in southern Fairfax County, the facilities that would take over most of Walter Reed’s functions.

Mr. Moran said the “vast majority” of Democrats and Republicans support the effort to keep Walter Reed open. He did not say whether he would support closing the medical center if the hospitals in Bethesda and Fort Belvoir were completed.

Congress established the BRAC Commission to depoliticize the process of rearranging and closing American military bases across the country and the world. Congress has never reconsidered decisions made by the BRAC Commission. That action could open the process to a number of bases being reconsidered, because many communities are hit hard economically when nearby military bases close.

Bethesda is expected to gain more than 1,000 jobs when Walter Reed closes.

Rep. Chris Van Hollen, Maryland Democrat whose district includes Bethesda, said the decision whether or not to close Walter Reed needs to be made in a “considered” way.

Congress should take time to study which option would be better for wounded soldiers rather than make a quick decision, he said.

Officials at both hospitals said they will continue with plans to absorb Walter Reed unless Congress changes the BRAC law, which the current amendment does not do.

“Until someone tells us the BRAC law has been overturned, we will proceed as we have been directed in the last 18 months, which is that we need to have everything completed by Sept. 15, 2011,” said Brian Badura, a spokesman for the National Naval Medical Center.

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