Ft. Bragg hospital chief fired; Hagel orders military healthcare review

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters at the Pentagon on May 1.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters at the Pentagon on May 1.
(Manuel Balce Ceneta / Associated Press)

The Army has removed the commander of the main military hospital at Ft. Bragg, N.C., and suspended three top hospital officials, saying the Army’s medical leaders had lost “trust and confidence” in his leadership.

The action came as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a sweeping 90-day review of all military healthcare facilities to ensure that military patients are not facing the same problems afflicting veterans seeking care at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals.

Col. Steven J. Brewster, who was due to leave the post on June 18, was relieved of duty as commander of Womack Army Medical Center, one of the Army’s biggest hospitals.

The removal came after two patients -- the 29-year-old wife of a soldier and a 24-year old active-duty service member -- died in the past week and a half after being treated at Womack. It also followed a critical inspection report by a hospital accreditation commission in March that cited concerns over possible surgical infections at the hospital.


In a brief news release issued late Tuesday night, the U.S. Army Medical Command said Brewster was removed “to address the changes needed to maintain a high level of patient care.’’

Brewster’s removal was not related to the review ordered by Hagel. The Pentagon decided last week to order the 90-day evaluation, which was prompted by the growing scandal over veterans’ healthcare at VA facilities.

The review will focus on safety and quality of medical care in the military system, which serves 9.6 million active-duty service members, retirees and their dependents, Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary, said in a statement, referring to Hagel’s order.

“It’s clearly within the context of what he’s watching at the VA,’’ Kirby said. “He doesn’t want to wait for similar allegations to appear with the active military healthcare system.’’

At Womack, Brewster was replaced by Col. Ronald Stephens, effective Tuesday, according to the medical command release. The decision was made by Col. Robert Tenhet, commander of the Northern Regional Medical Command and approved by the Army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the release said.

The Womack deputy commanders for clinical services, nursing and administration were temporarily suspended “pending the outcome of investigations,’’ the statement said.

In March, the Joint Commission, an independent, nonprofit body that accredits more than 20,500 healthcare organizations nationwide, raised concerns about possible surgical infections at Womack. Brewster suspended elective surgery for two days to address the issue.

Brewster told the Fayetteville Observer in March that the commission found no patients were in danger. He said the hospital received full accreditation with no follow-up inspections required.


“We were doing the disinfection well but we weren’t documenting that we were doing it well,’’ Brewster told the newspaper.

Public affairs officials at Womack and at Ft. Bragg declined Wednesday to provide information about the two patients who died after being treated at the hospital.

Asked whether Brewster’s firing was related to the two deaths, Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the Army Medical Command, said she could not comment because of the ongoing investigation. Tolleson said privacy laws prevent the command from providing details about the deaths.

Racheal Marie Rice, 29, the mother of three and the wife of Staff Sgt. Aaron Rice, of Fayetteville, N.C., died at Womack on May 17, according to an obituary notice from Rice’s family.


Rice underwent a tubal ligation May 16, then returned home. She was taken by ambulance the next day to Womack, where she died, according to the New York Times, citing people familiar with the case.

The 24-year-old service member was treated at the Womack emergency room last weekend and diagnosed with tachycardia, a condition with an elevated heart rate, according to the newspaper. His name was not released.

The hospital serves active-duty service members and their dependents, along with long-serving military retirees and their families. Womack is one of 41 in-patient hospitals operated in the United States by the Department of Defense, serving 160,000 eligible beneficiaries -- the largest of any Army facility.