Afghan Hospital Leaves A Mixed Legacy For Wisconsin Senate Candidate

Tommy Thompson boasted of his involvement in an Afghan hospital program. “What humanitarian efforts has [Baldwin] ever been involved in,” his campaign asks.

The Rabia Balkhi Hospital in Kabul. Rabia Balkhi Hospital / Via rbh-moph.gov.af

At the Wisconsin senate debate last month, Republican candidate Tommy Thompson touted his role in a 2003 program at Rabia Balkhi Hospital, a women’s health facility in Afghanistan that has been linked to dangerously unsanitary conditions and poor management.

Thomspon, who served as President George W. Bush’s first Health & Human Services Secretary after a 14-year tenure as governor of Wisconsin, said at the Sept. 28 debate that his role in the hosptial program made him qualified to help end the war in Afghanistan.

“We should now get out of Afghanistan,” Thompson said at his first debate with Democratic opponent Rep. Tammy Balwdin. “I’ve been to Afghanistan four times. I built a hospital, Rabia Balkhi, for woman and children in Kabul in Afghanstan.”

Thomspon called it “one of those humanitarian things that I’ve been involved in.”

Thompson did not build Rabia Balkhi — it first opened 20 years ago — but he did found a program to refurbish the hospital and reduce infant and maternal mortality rates.

Bill Hall, spokesman for HHS, told BuzzFeed the project was initially funded at a level of $6 million dollars and was part of a program called the Afghanistan Health Initative, founded by the HHS and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“[The program] provided public health support to assist Afghans in the delivery of safe emergency obstetrical and neonatal care at the long-standing Rabia Balkhi Hospital,” said Hall, who added that part of the goal was to help the Afghan Ministry of Health “to translate best practices” from Rabia Balkhi to other hospitals in Afghanistan.

Once Rabia Balkhi re-opened in 2003, Thompson said in his press release that it was “a new day in Afghanistan.” The release promised “a new hospital for women to receive topnotch health care and a new training program that will provide the best medical instruction to Afghanistan’s health care providers.”

But the legacy of the hospital program remains unclear. According to a 2007 report by The Atlanta Journal-Consitution, Rabia Balkhi did not live up to expectations. A doctor from the CDC visited the hospital in 2003 and told the AJC that conditions were “horrible” — he described “feces all over the halls, blood everywhere…no drugs, no record keeping no signs of the refurbishment save new paint in a few spots.”

Thompson told the AJC in 2007 that the hospital had gotten “a hell of a lot better than it was when we started.”

Following the report, Rep. Henry Waxman from California, then-chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, wrote a letter to HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt requesting an investigation into the hospital program.

“Millions of dollars have been spent on this initiative,” Waxman wrote, “and those funds should have been spent in ways that most effectively improve the quality of care for Afghan mothers and their babies.”

Hall told BuzzFeed that Waxman’s letter never led to an investigation. In response to the AJC report, the HHS wrote an op-ed in defense of the project. The piece claimed that the AJC article cherry-picked its quotes and statistics, choosing to “paint a picture of failure.”

“Make no mistake,” wrote William Steiger, Director of the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs, “Rabia Balkhi Hospital does not compare to a modern U.S. hospital. But it is considered the best hospital in Afghanistan. It is clean and offers good health care.”

Thompson’s Communications Director, Lisa Boothe, tied Rabia Balkhi to a commitment by the candidate to several humanitarian projects. Boothe referred BuzzFeed to Thompson’s involvement in President Bush’s AIDS initiative and his time as chairman of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS.

In response to questions about the AJC report, Booth pointed to a Washington Times article describing how poor conditions at Rabia Balkhi were before Thompson’s program. “There was no running water to wash up before operating,” Thompson told reporters in 2003. “Now there’s water, equipment, supplies and even a daycare center on the second floor.”

Booth added: “What humanitarian efforts has Madison liberal Tammy Baldwin ever been involved in?”

Today the Rabia Balkhi Hospital is still serving women in Afghanistan, but is no longer supervised by the United States. Congress eliminated funding for the program in the spring of last year, according to the HHS.

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