Secretary of the Army John McHugh’s visit to Joint Base Lewis-McChord left many reporters with more questions than answers about the Army’s efforts to improve its behavioral health services.
His press conference generated frustration among reporters who left without knowing what to produce. I had a front page space to fill, and I chose to highlight a resiliency program he announced even though it was unclear to me how it was different from similar efforts I have covered.
Keith Eldridge from KOMO produced a story that essentially said the Secretary of the Army came to Lewis-McChord to talk about behavioral health, but he came empty handed.
The trouble started with a press release last week that said McHugh would “announce the completion of a comprehensive, Army-wide review of Soldier behavioral health diagnoses and evaluations.”
This signaled significant news to Puget Sound news outlets. Last year, the Army announced multiple investigations into behavioral health misdiagnoses at Madigan Army Medical Center. They snowballed into greater reviews and eventually contributed to the creation an Army Behavioral Health Task Force.
In the meantime, the Army announced multiple corrective actions based on its reviews of Madigan’s programs, such as:
- Suspending Madigan Commander Col. Dallas Homas and then reinstating him when the investigations showed that he did not attempt to influence diagnoses.
- Opening a behavioral health fusion cell that reconsidered Madigan diagnoses. The cell completed its work in the fall after diagnosing 150 former Madigan patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Ceasing the widespread use of Madigan’s forensic psychiatry program, which the Army considers to be a useful review of diagnoses but not in every situation.
We have filed FOIA requests for the Army’s investigations into Madigan’s forensic psychiatry team as they were announced last year. We first filed them last spring, and we directed them to the I Corps and the Western Regional Medical Command based on guidance from officials in I Corps, Western Regional Medical Command, Army Medical Command and Sen. Patty Murray’s office.
Murray also was pressing for more investigations and we followed her questions to Pentagon leaders to tease out where we should steer our requests.
In August, the Army announced its corrective actions relating to the forensic psychiatry program and reinstated Col. Homas. We called Western Regional Medical Command to ask about the FOIA requests and were told they no longer belonged to that office. Instead they now belonged to the Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.
We submitted new FOIA requests to the Department of the Army.
In November, the department responded to our FOIA request and denied it, except for a two-page summary describing why it reinstated Col. Homas. The Army characterized the documents we wanted as “predecisional” because they were contributing to the Army Behavioral Health Task Force report.
Last month, we appealed that response. Hal Bernton at The Seattle Times and I wrote a letter laying out all the known corrective actions the Army had taken relating to Madigan to illustrate that decisions have been made and the reports should be released.
Last Friday, we received an invite to the Secretary of the Army’s press conference that said he would announce the results of the Army Behavioral Task Force report. I sounded the alarm at the paper and said we should play up this visit because McHugh appeared to be preparing to give an update on investigation of great significance to the military and veteran community we cover.
On Monday, the Army released a memo on improving soldiers resiliency programs that McHugh planned to sign at Lewis-McChord. The memo appeared to describe programs we have been covering at the base for the past two years.
At the press conference, McHugh announced that the behavioral health task force had reached 24 findings and 47 recommendations. He would not describe them, except for one that called on the Army to consolidate its behavioral health programs under one command. He said he wanted transparency in the process, and that he was not trying to cover anything up.
Today, the Army rejected our latest FOIA appeal. It said that the Madigan reports remain “predecisional” components of the larger review. This is difficult to understand now that we know the Army Behavioral Health Task Force report is complete and awaiting implementation.
The exemption the Army cited could keep the reports in the dark permanently because the service could interpret “predecisional” as every document that contributed to its conclusions, exempting them in the spirit of getting candor from participants.
Bottom line: The Army is not being transparent about what happened at Madigan last year. It assures the public it has fixed the problem at Madigan, but it is not revealing the information that would build faith in its conclusions. It is not telling us how Madigan doctors apparently misdiagnosed hundreds of patients, and it is not telling us whether those misdiagnoses were motivated by concerns about money and patient benefits, as alleged by critics.
I doubt that was the case because it is hard to believe that psychiatrists would dedicate their careers to working with soldiers only to angle to deny them benefits they earned in combat. Still, the Army is not settling these questions by continuing to withhold its investigations.