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Pentagon chief orders medical care review amid problems at hospital

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters at the Al Udeid Airbase, west of Doha December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel speaks to reporters at the Al Udeid Airbase, west of Doha December 10, 2013. REUTERS/Mark Wilson/Pool

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered a comprehensive review of the U.S. military's healthcare system on Tuesday after the head of an Army medical center was relieved of command over concerns about problems at the hospital, including two deaths.

The 90-day review, to be led by the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, comes amid an investigation of timely access to care in the separate medical system for U.S. military veterans.

Rear Admiral John Kirby, the top Pentagon spokesman, said in a statement the review would examine "whether current access to care meets the department's standards" as well as "the safety and quality of care provided to all Department of Defense beneficiaries."

The announcement of the review came after the commander of Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, was relieved of his duties on Tuesday, several weeks ahead of time.

The New York Times said the Womack shake-up, including the suspension of three of the center's top deputies, was triggered by two deaths at the hospital as well as problems with surgical infection control identified by an independent accrediting body.

The problems at the Fort Bragg medical center, one of the Army's busiest hospitals, come at a time of heightened concern about medical care for military personnel and retirees after the Department of Veterans Affairs started a probe of treatment delays at its hospitals and clinics.

The probe began after doctors at a Phoenix veterans' hospital said they were ordered to hold veterans' names for months on a secret waiting list until a spot opened up on an official list that met the agency's two-week waiting time goals for patients needing to see a doctor.

Kirby said Hagel would meet senior defense officials on Wednesday to discuss the scope of the review and his expectations for it.

"It is fair to say that he ordered this review within the context of what is going on at the VA. To the degree we have similar issues - and we do not know that we necessarily have them - he wants to know and he wants to attack them aggressively," Kirby said.

(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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