The Army ousted the commander of one of its busiest hospitals and suspended three top deputies Tuesday after two patients in their 20s unexpectedly died shortly after they sought treatment at the hospital's emergency room in the past 10 days.
The shakeup at the hospital, Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C., came at a moment of heightened sensitivity about health care in the military community, stirred by the furor over treatment delays in the separate medical system serving the nation's veterans. Late Tuesday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a broad review to ensure that military patients — many of them active-duty service members and their families — are not facing similar problems.
"He wants to make sure that to the degree that we have any similar issues that we are aggressively going after them," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
Defense officials said the review, which will cover access to health care, patient safety and quality of care, had been decided upon last week and was unrelated to the situation at Womack.
They said the changes at Womack were due to the patient deaths and problems with surgical infection identified in March by the Joint Commission, an independent body that accredits hospitals. In a statement, the Army said that "senior Army medical leaders have lost trust and confidence" in Womack's commander, Col. Steven Brewster, and had replaced him with Col. Ronald Stephens, another doctor.
New acting deputies were also named to head clinical services, nursing and administration, pending the results of investigations into the deaths of the two patients.
Womack is one of 41 domestic inpatient hospitals run by the Defense Department, serving active-duty service members and their families, as well as long-serving retirees and their families. The separate system run by the Department of Veterans Affairs cares for those who left the military after less than 20 years. Investigators are examining allegations that records were altered at more than two dozen veterans hospitals to disguise a backlog of patients awaiting treatment.
At Womack, the first of the two recent fatalities involved Racheal Marie Rice, 29, a mother of three who underwent a routine tubal ligation May 16 and died the following morning, according to hospital staff members. The procedure is considered low-risk for complications and death.
The second patient, a 24-old-year-old active-duty service member who could not be identified, visited the emergency room last weekend and was diagnosed with tachycardia, a potentially dangerous condition involving an elevated heart rate, according to two people familiar with the case. He had recently been treated in Womack's surgery unit for abscesses, but it was unclear whether that was part of the reason for his emergency room visit.
He was given medication, instructed to follow up with his doctor, and released, according to one staff member.
Pentagon data shows that Womack, which performs more than 14,000 inpatient and outpatient surgeries a year, had a higher than expected rate of surgical complications from January 2010 to July 2013, the latest data available.