Inconvenient News,
       by smintheus

Friday, June 15, 2007

  Another Walter Reed privatization scandal

If you've been reading Unbossed for long, you'll recall that shirah has been writing for years about the Bush administration's reckless and often outlandishly illegal campaign to privatize as many federal jobs as possible. The old and new media finally started to pay attention in March when we highlighted the role that unbridled privatization played in creating the miserable conditions for patients at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Through a series of infamously corrupt bids, the politically well-connected IAP World Services was awarded a contract for support operations at WRAMC. The bad will generated by IAP's manipulation of the "process" led directly to the rapid decline of services—as experienced workers fled WRAMC even before IAP took over!

Today we learned of another, similar scandal. This one involves a private contractor who over many months simply neglected to deliver a mountain of mail to patients at the Medical Center. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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The Associated Press reports:

The Army said Friday that it has opened an investigation into the recent discovery of 4,500 letters and parcels — some dating to May 2006 — at Walter Reed that were never delivered to soldiers. And it fired the contract employee who ran the mailroom...

Maj. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, commander of Walter Reed, said he ordered a team of 20 to 40 soldiers and civilians to launch an around-the-clock operation to screen, survey and forward all the letters and parcels. Items addressed to soldiers still at Walter Reed were being hand-delivered Friday night, he said.

"This delay is completely and absolutely unsatisfactory," Schoomaker said...

The acting Army surgeon general, Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, said...she ordered an immediate review and inspections of mail room procedures and supervisory controls at other medical centers.

It's too soon to tell whether in this scandal there are further stories of personal suffering cloaked behind the plain facts of indifference and incompetence. Are there patient records or billing information lurking in that mountain of undelivered mail? How many desperately awaited checks gathered dust? Whose shattered lives were affected?

What's clear in any event is that this represents another case of gross negligence, in which there is no effective oversight of those who contract to perform essential government services. It's a pattern that we've seen over and over again. The Bush administration trusts with the fervor of the true-believer that privatizing the federal workforce is a panacea for all ills. Any evidence to the contrary is deeply unwelcome. Therefore little evidence regarding the effectiveness and integrity of these new contractors is collected, and even less is actually acted upon.

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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The corporate contractor is also responsible for allowing the mail to pile up, of course. Which corporation is it? The AP does not say, and thus far neither I nor shirah have been able to pinpoint the privatization contract in question.

But I can venture some guesses. One obvious suspect is IAP, which in recent years has held various contracts for delivering military mail in Kuwait, Iraq, and also Afghanistan. In many instances, you won't be surprised to learn, the troops complained about the poor service provided by IAP.

Even so, DoD continued to press ahead with further plans to privatize this basic service. Here's a report from last July, Defense Department seeks input on military mail overhaul:

The Defense Department is weighing options for reconfiguring the military postal system, in what could be a precursor to a public-private job competition for the processing and delivery of mail to the armed services.

A December report by the Defense Business Board, an advisory group for top Defense leaders, suggested that the department issue a request for proposals soliciting what it termed "transformational" solutions to military mail delivery.

"Outsourcing to the maximum extent possible would allow private sector best practices to guide the development of the most efficient business model, making use of available technology," the board reported. The group noted the current piecemeal approach to outsourcing elements of the mail system risked increasing complexity and costs, and suggested the department start with a clean slate to solicit a new, end-to-end solution that would integrate with the existing military supply chain.

The group cited an April 2004 Government Accountability Office report on mail delivery during Operation Iraqi Freedom, which found that many service members were unhappy with long delivery times, and that Defense was unable to reliably track delivery times...

In recent years, public-private competitions often have been controversial, with high levels of union involvement and congressional intervention. [Director for housing and competitive sourcing in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Installations and Environment Joseph] Sikes said a Defense mail competition, depending on what particular job functions were included, could be less contentious since many of the affected employees are military, rather than civilian.

At WRAMC, however, the mail is currently being handled by a private contractor. It's possible but not necessary to infer from the AP report that the employee who was fired today had been working at that job as early as May 2006. Several of the IAP contracts at WRAMC became effective only this year, but that may not be relevant because IAP held a variety of contracts at the Medical Center already in 2005.

IAP supports the Army's mission at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where employees provide administrative, professional, industrial and technical support on a task order basis through the service program known as FedSource.

There are plenty of possible culprits in this scandal, however. I learned from shirah that ServiceSource holds many contracts for operating government mailrooms, including those at the IRS (where mistreated employees filed a successful lawsuit), the EPA, and many military bases.

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The military acted quickly to begin delivering such mail as it can, once the scandal was uncovered. Perhaps the Army brass have gotten the message finally that it's far better to fix what is broken at WRAMC than to cover it up. Let's hope they'll explain as soon as possible how the mailroom escaped effective supervision for so long, and how this reflects upon the ongoing privatization of government services.

Quis non custodiebat ipsos custodes?

crossposted at Unbossed

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