Military boosts Madigan mission

FORT LEWIS – Col. Jerry Penner took command of Madigan Army Medical Center on Thursday amid the usual fanfare: brass bands, lofty speeches and a cheering crowd.

But the ceremony was more than the hospital receiving a new boss. The transfer of authority was the most visible step to date of a larger change affecting medical care for soldiers and their families across the western United States.

The change comes amid the reorganization of the Western Regional Medical Command, the Army unit that oversees medical facilities in six states. The command is expanding to 20 states with authority over nine military treatment facilities. Thursday’s ceremony officially split the duties of the regional commander and the hospital commander.

The reorganization should mean increased access to health care and improved warfighting readiness, said Maj. Gen. Patricia Horoho. She relinquished leadership of the hospital but will continue to command the region, now stretching from Alaska to western Texas.

“There has not been, in my career, as large of a transformation across the military health care system as we’re about to see,” Horoho told The News Tribune last week.

The regional command will remain headquartered at Fort Lewis, and its reorganization should be complete by October 2010.

The Pentagon chose Fort Lewis because of its large troop population (about 31,000), the large number of combat troops (including three Stryker brigades) and its proximity to a major airport, among other reasons.

Madigan logs almost 1 million outpatient visits each year, and that volume is expected to rise as soldiers returning from deployments are treated for lingering injuries, more National Guard and reserve service members qualify for medical care, and Fort Lewis continues to add soldiers.

About 132,000 beneficiaries are eligible for care at Madigan this year, Horoho said.

“This is such a large command,” she said, “and you need someone here focusing on the day-to-day mission of running a medical center and building those community relations.”

Horoho, 49, has juggled the responsibilities of running the region, Madigan and the Army Nurse Corps since July 2008 – a tenure that Maj. Gen. David Rubenstein, the Army deputy surgeon general, called “wildly successful.”

The growth of the regional command should translate to better care at Madigan, Horoho said. When doctors, nurses and other medical personnel deploy to Iraq, Afghanistan or elsewhere, she had to pull replacements from other medical facilities. That often meant putting a Madigan employee on temporary duty elsewhere.

Drawing on staff across a 20-state region means less strain on the local hospital, she said.

The planning has been going on for two years. A military task force, which met in 2007 and 2008, suggested the changes in part to realign the regional boundaries with similar regions operated by the U.S. Veterans Affairs Department, Federal Emergency Management Agency and military health provider TRICARE.

Penner, a 48-year-old Kentucky native, was most recently commander of the U.S. Army Medical Department Activity in Fort Drum, N.Y. He deployed to Iraq to command a medical task force in Baghdad in 2004-05.

Thursday’s ceremony included a transfer of responsibility for Madigan’s top enlisted soldier. Command Sgt. Maj. Billy King will take the same job with the regional command. Sgt. Maj. Michael Kurtz is taking his place at Madigan.

Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758