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Hold on Pentagon Nomination Over Abortion Issues Hampering Military Health Care, Official Says

Hold on Pentagon Nomination Over Abortion Issues Hampering Military Health Care, Official Says

October 20, 2010 — A senatorial hold on President Obama's nominee for the Pentagon's top health policy position is compromising the military's ability to address quality and cost issues and cope with an increase in wounded soldiers from Afghanistan, Undersecretary of Defense Clifford Stanley said on Tuesday, CQ Today reports.

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) placed a hold on Obama's nomination of Jonathan Woodson, a vascular surgeon and Army Reserve brigadier general, to be the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs. Wicker objects to a provision in the Defense authorization bill (S 3454) that would allow women to obtain abortion services at military facilities (Oliveri, CQ Today, 10/20). The provision, authored by Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.), would repeal a policy that bans nearly all abortion services at military hospitals, even if paid for with private funds. The Burris provision would allow members of the military and their dependents to obtain abortion care at military hospitals if they paid for the procedure with their own money. The House passed its version of the defense spending bill (HR 5136) in May but did not include language comparable to the Burris provision. Currently, abortion services are banned at all military facilities unless the woman's life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (Women's Health Policy Report, 10/19).

As a result of the current policy, women must go off base to obtain abortion care. For women serving in areas such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the policy "makes it virtually impossible for them to receive a legal abortion as other American women could," CQ Today reports. The Burris provision would not affect the prohibition on the use of federal funds to pay for abortion services.

If confirmed, Woodson would head the Military Health System -- the global medical network under the Pentagon -- and lead force health protection and readiness, clinical and program policy, and health budgets and financial policy. He would be responsible for programs involving thousands of people, with a budget that tops $30 billion.

Military Health Policy Hampered

Stanley said the effect of not having a top health policy official at the Pentagon "has been significant" at a time when the military is facing rising suicide rates, traumatic brain injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder cases and increased strain on families -- all areas that are under the purview of the assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs. Two interim officials have been in place since the position became vacant in April 2009.

A senior Democratic congressional aide said "leadership (is) severely lacking and quite discombobulated" in the absence of a permanent assistant secretary. Lawmakers have called for proposals to cut costs in the Defense Health Program -- one of the military's fastest growing budget items -- but it is "[k]ind of hard to move both within the department and in Congress without an assistant secretary of Defense," the aide said.

The lack of leadership also has hurt oversight of the congressionally mandated Defense Centers of Excellence for Traumatic Brain Injury and Psychological Health and stalled a report on the Pentagon's plans for managing various centers of excellence, according to the aide.

Discussions Stalled

Stanley said he met with Wicker to discuss his concerns about the abortion provision. Wicker "said he was willing to engage with us," but the talks did not progress, Stanley said.

Wicker has charged that allowing abortion services at military facilities would place strain on an already overburdened military health care system. Stanley disputed that contention, noting that vital medical care would take priority over elective abortion procedures. "I know from my own experience, we don't need additional people, training or facilities," Stanley added (CQ Today, 10/20).