The Joint Commission, the nonprofit healthcare accrediting organization that inspects the quality of patient treatment at hospitals, has dispatched an official to assess potential problems at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune.
"Yes, we do have a surveyor on site," said Elizabeth Zhani, spokeswoman for the commission, confirming that one of its officials was at Camp Lejeune on Friday.
Zhani wouldn't divulge details on just what the commission was investigating, but confirmed that the review was based on a specific complaint about patient care at the hospital. "We go in and we assess the healthcare organizations according to our standards related to patient safety and quality of care," Zhani said. "We did receive some information that led us to conduct the survey on site today." She added only that this review was focused on "assessing patient needs, planning care treatment and services, providing care treatment and services, and coordinating care treatment and services."
The commission's review comes after a series of Salon articles chronicled complaints by Dr. Kernan Manion, a civilian psychiatrist who formerly worked there. Last year, Manion complained in writing to superiors about life-threatening deficiencies in the management of mental health care for Marines with psychological injuries from combat. Seeing little response, a frustrated Manion finally appealed to a series of military inspectors general and was fired four days later last September.
Salon also documented an apparent effort by Navy officials to doctor Manion's performance evaluation after his concerns were first aired in Salon in order to make him look like a bad doctor.
It is possible that this latest review by the commission has nothing to do with Manion's concerns about the management of mental health care. A number of doctors at the Camp Lejeune hospital have contacted Salon to describe frightening resource shortages, corners being cut, and sloppiness in other medical departments. Perhaps the commission is looking into another department altogether.
If, however, this review is focused on the management of mental health care there, then commission officials have joined the flurry of investigations that have followed the Salon series about Manion and Camp Lejeune. Hospital sources confirm that Brig. Gen. Kenneth Lee, the inspector general of the Marine Corps, visited Camp Lejeune earlier this week, looking into allegations of mishandling Marines returning from war suffering from acute combat stress.
The Navy also says it conducted its own quality assurance review of mental health care at Camp Lejeune last fall. That review showed that all is well.
"I am very assured that the quality of mental health care that is available to the Marines and sailors at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune is very high," Rear Adm. Bob Kiser, commander of Navy Medicine East, which oversees healthcare at Camp Lejeune, told Salon in a recent interview. Kiser also dismissed the notion that the Navy doctored Manion's record
Kiser's statements have not reassured Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C. Jones has been going back-and-forth with the Department of Defense inspector general on the scope of an entirely separate probe that would be kept out of the Navy's hands. Jones wrote Defense Secretary Robert Gates in January to ask that the inspector general look into Manion's firing, the alleged smearing of his record, and also the care of Marines at Camp Lejeune, which is what troubled Manion in the first place.
The Defense Department inspector general responded to Jones on Feb. 4 and confirmed an investigation "into Dr. Manion's allegations concerning the termination of his employment."
The scope of that probe, then, remains unclear, since Jones wants a broader investigation into the handling of Marines. Jones told Salon in an interview Thursday that he believes the inspector general must look into Manion -- and also the treatment of Marines -- at the same time. "I don't see how they can do the investigation without knowing why Dr. Manion's performance record was changed," Jones told Salon.
"Why would he go from being an outstanding psychiatrist and doing a great job and then all of a sudden he is not doing a great job?" Jones asked. "That only came about when (Manion) started speaking out that these Marines were having problems. That is what I think and hope is going to come out."
Sources inside the Defense Department inspector general's office, however, say narrowing an investigation -- say, to focus on Manion but not the treatment of Marines -- is an infamous way of burying problems.
In his interview with Salon, Jones did not rule out pushing to ensure the probe is wide and the treatment of Marines at Camp Lejeune gets the attention the matter deserves.
Meanwhile, Marines familiar with mental health care at Camp Lejeune describe a mess. "I was in the inpatient ward for about a week. I was the only officer there," a Marine who attended the Naval Academy told Salon. "Mostly they just hand out meds. They never really brought up how to take care of your thoughts or how to train yourself how do deal with emotions. It was just, ‘Here. Take this. Take this.'"
He said the Marine Corps treats soldiers with mental problems like garbage. "They kick you to the curb and treat you like an outcast. It's horrible," he said. "Would you rather find an officer swinging from his shower stall or abusing alcohol or other things Marines are doing because they won't get help? Obviously, the Marine Corps is saying, ‘Yes.'"