By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel took steps on Wednesday to improve the U.S. military healthcare system after a review concluded that some patients had to wait too long to see a doctor and others received care that was below standard.
The Pentagon chief gave Defense Department hospitals and clinics with underperforming units 30 days to develop plans to reduce wait times and deal with other access issues. He told facilities with quality problems to submit improvement plans in 45 days.
"The review found pockets of excellence ... it also found gaps, however, and facilities that must improve," Hagel told reporters at the Pentagon.
"The bottom-line finding is that the military healthcare system ... is comparable in access, quality and safety to average private-sector healthcare," he added. "But we cannot accept average ... we can do better."
Officials said none of the medical facilities examined underperformed consistently on the three main areas examined: access to care, quality of care or safety. There were some underperforming units in some hospitals, but the overall facility provided reliable healthcare, they said.
Hagel ordered the healthcare system review in late May after the head of an Army medical center was relieved of command over concerns about problems at the hospital, including two deaths.
The incident coincided with an investigation into waiting times at the separate medical system for U.S. military veterans. A probe found that staff at a Veterans Affairs facility in Phoenix had hidden months-long waiting times so they could meet the two-week targets used to determine salary and bonuses.
That finding sparked a political furor that led to the resignation of U.S. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, a respected 71-year-old retired Army general.
Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, who led the study of the military's healthcare system, said he did not think it was useful to compare the issues identified by his review with those found at the Veterans Affairs medical system.
"We were satisfied with the finding that we are comparable with the (civilian) healthcare system and we have no crisis," Work said.
The review found the military healthcare system generally "provides good quality care that is safe and timely, and is comparable to that found in the civilian sector," according to a final report nearly 650 pages long.
It also found wide performance variability, with some areas doing better than civilian facilities and others below national benchmarks.
The report noted the failure to create system-wide measures to track and monitor performance in the areas of access, quality and safety. For example, the military healthcare system does not track office waiting times, a standard used by others.
The U.S. military healthcare system provides treatment for 9.6 million people, including troops, retirees and family members. It operates 56 hospitals, 361 ambulatory care clinics and 249 dental clinics. It employs more than 146,000 people, both military and civilian.
The study did not address issues related to battlefield medicine.
(Reporting by David Alexander. Editing by Andre Grenon)