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UT-Houston’s Casscells Now on Duty as Assistant Secretary of Defense

HOUSTON – (April 17, 2007)—After an informal swearing-in without family or guests yesterday, S. Ward Casscells III, M.D., has assumed his new duties as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs. In this position, Casscells will be responsible for overall leadership of the Military Health System, serve as the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense for all DoD health policies and programs and oversee all DoD health resources.

Dr. S. Ward Casscells (3rd from left) finds enthusiastic UT Longhorn fans at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, during a mess hall visit on Sept. 9, 2006.
Dr. S. Ward Casscells (3rd from left) finds enthusiastic UT Longhorn fans at Camp Liberty, Baghdad, during a mess hall visit on Sept. 9, 2006.

“It is an honor to be asked to care for our active, reserve and retired military and their families –especially now – when we have so many wounded and disabled, and have struggled to provide the best care,” said Casscells.  “Military health care has always been more Spartan than deluxe, but has gotten good grades in recent years by accreditation bodies and surveys.”

Casscells is taking a leave of absence as vice president for biotechnology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and as associate director for cardiology research in the Texas Heart Institute at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital.

“We congratulate Dr. Casscells on being sworn in as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs.  We shall sorely miss his considerable talents and his outstanding leadership, but we are proud to share those talents and leadership with our Armed Forces and our country,” said James T. Willerson, M.D., president of the UT Health Science Center at Houston and president-elect of the Texas Heart Institute. “He will serve with distinction as he takes on these awesome responsibilities.  We wish him and his family the very best and look forward to their returning home to us in the not too distant future.”

The U.S. Senate confirmed Casscells’ appointment by unanimous consent March 29. In a statement, Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) congratulated Casscells.  “With his medical background, his record of leadership and accomplishment, and his service as a veteran of Iraq, I believe Dr. Casscells is the right person at the right time for this position,” said Sen. Hutchison. “His record is filled with amazing academic and personal accomplishments. But when you look at Dr. Casscells’ life as a whole, there is one overriding theme – service to others. On behalf of my fellow Texans, I want to personally thank him and his family for their service and sacrifice and congratulate them on his confirmation.”

During pre-confirmation testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Casscells promised he would bring a patient’s perspective to the job as top health care official for the DoD.  He told senators he’d experienced DoD health care firsthand as an Army Reserve colonel in Iraq and understood the widespread frustration with “the bureaucracy that has been in the news lately.” Casscells testified he would continue – and accelerate, if possible – current efforts to implement electronic medical records and make other “improvements to efficiency and accountability.”

Before immersing himself in Pentagon business, Casscells made time for a conversation via BlackBerry—


How do you think your experience at the UT Health Science Center will be helpful in Washington?

I have the great advantage of having known, for the past 15 years, the most remarkable leader in medicine, Jim Willerson. I have never seen his equal – not in dedication to patients, to excellence in discovery and teaching, or to fairness and ethical conduct.  The great surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley once asked me, with a chuckle, “Why do you think he works so hard? Think anyone can love their work that much?”  Sure!—Jim Willerson has outworked most people, and what an example he has set!  Like they say about the best officers, “First out of the foxhole, last in the chow line.”

How have the much-publicized problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center affected your perspective on your new job?

For the past month I have been making rounds at Walter Reed, meeting with patients, families, students, nurses, generals, legislators, and the dozens of groups and agencies that want to help.  We have all seen the poor maintenance at one of the outpatient housing units at Walter Reed (just one of several hundred military hospitals and clinics). These revelations – to the credit of the Washington Post – have gotten the facilities fixed, and all other facilities and quality of care are being closely scrutinized by military leaders, Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO), Congressional panels, Presidential task forces, the press and advocacy groups. Hopefully, everyone now recognizes how strict military accountability is … More importantly, it has focused attention on the military's disability bureaucracy, which is frustrating to all – but especially tough on soldiers with head injuries, limited means, and spouses who have to leave their jobs and children to advocate for their soldier. We've got to fix that, and this is Job 1.
What other improvements in DoD health services are you looking for?
  Related tasks include improving our electronic medical records (which are crucial to reducing errors), guarding privacy, coordinating care with the VA and other hospitals and facilItating research.  Other major foci are education at our several schools, biomedical research (including head and extremity injuries, stress disorders, and prevention) and public health surveillance public health – including military support of disaster and pandemic readiness and response.
In a time of war, what challenges other than patient care does DoD Health Affairs face?
Funds are not limitless. Defense health has about 130,000 people caring for 10 million, in over 100 countries, and a budget of about $40 billion. This is from taxes on hard-earned money, and must be spent and invested as efficiently and fairly as possible, planning for the long term and the unpredictable.
What tools from your work here as a physician and scientists contribute to your priorities at the DoD?
When people ask me, "What is your strategic plan?" I ask them if they have ever ridden the mechanical bull at the rodeo? Few at the Pentagon have, and fewer still at my old medical school (Harvard).  But "Just hang on" is not much of a plan. Experience helps – and I have learned from my mistakes – and from being a patient and a doctor in both military and civilian hospitals. I have also learned from colleagues at UT, Texas Heart Institute, and Memorial Hermann Hospital with military medical experience – including Drs. “Red” Duke, Chuck Cox, Rich Andrassy, Rich Bradley and Scott Lillibridge, Charles “Bill" McClain, and O.H. "Bud" Frazier. And I have been able to meet several times with Dr. Michael DeBakey, who since World War II has done so much for military medicine and veterans. It will not be easy …
Any other thoughts as you get to work in Washington?
I will close with just one story. In 1993, Dr. Willerson asked me to lead the UT Medical School’s cardiology division, which had a full share of distinguished, battle-hardened and charismatic leaders.  I asked if I could first take a six-week executive training program. Dr. Willerson said there was no money – with no endowment or surplus clinical revenue, I would have to use my own research funds to help the division.  I asked how I was to do this. He replied, "That's leadership."

The White House first announced on Feb. 22 President Bush’s intention to nominate Casscells to replace William Winkenwerder Jr., M.D.

Secretary Casscells’ official biography is online at:

Media contact: David R. Bates
Media Hotline:  713-500-3030

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