Members of Congress, reacting to a series of internal Defense Department audits that revealed serious deficiencies in military medical care, are moving to overhaul a 35-year-old law that bars servicemen and women from suing the government for medical mistakes.
Questions about the quality of the medical care in military hospitals have been raised by individual legislators and congressional committees, specifically a House Armed Services subcommittee that handles military personnel and compensation, following the release of the audits earlier this year.
Hearings to discuss military medical care are a "strong possibility" by that committee sometime next month, according to staff members there.
Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced a bill yesterday that would allow service members to sue for injuries caused by improper medical care in military hospitals. Sen. James Sasser (D-Tenn.) said he will introduce a bill today that would allow service members to sue for medical malpractice during peacetime.
Both measures, according to letters the legislators circulated during the last week, were prompted by the unprecedented series of audits that showed some Army, Navy and Air Force hospitals did not follow many health care standards established by the Defense Department and followed by accrediting hospital associations.
The audits were ordered two years ago by Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger a few months after the federal government lost a $2.1 million negligence suit that stemmed from an operation performed by an Air Force surgeon in a private hospital.
The audits, conducted by the inspector general of the Department of Defense and individual branch auditors in 1983 and 1984, found that some doctors were approved for practice with only cursory reviews, that others had unrestrained access to military pharmacies and that emergency room procedures were not consistent in each branch.
While generating interest in overall military health care, the audits have also renewed debate over a judicial tenet known as the Feres Doctrine, which forbids active service members from suing.
The Feres Doctrine stems from a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case in which a serviceman's family sued the government for damages after the man died in a barracks fire. The court ruled that servicemen and women should not be allowed to sue for injuries or death suffered in the line of duty because such claims threatened a traditional chain-of-command that the military needed to function effectively.
As a result, active duty service members who are now disabled through military medical malpractice have no legal recourse. They are often retired and allotted disability levels according to a preset veterans' compensation schedule. Retirees who suffer injury at the hospitals and their dependents can sue for some damages, such as those resulting from malpractice, under the Federal Torts Claims Act, which allows the government to be sued for carelessness by its employes.
Sasser said he drafted a proposal to change the Feres Doctrine because he is concerned about constituents' complaints and "my concerns were confirmed by the audits."
"One of the rationales for the Feres Doctrine was to protect the chain of command in the military," Sasser said yesterday. "But the upshot has been that the chain of command has not been effective in delivering quality medical care to its military personnel. It leaves the military person who is getting the health care holding the bag."
Some members of Congress from Virginia and Maryland who have military bases in their home districts expressed interest in Frank's and Sasser's bills but did not commit themselves to supporting the bills yesterday, staff members said.
"The idea of it is a good one," said Katie Tucker, press secretary for Rep. Roy Dyson (D-Maryland), whose district includes the Patuxent Naval Air Station. "It's important that military personnel have as many rights as civilians."
Frank has found 12 cosponsors so far to support his bill, which is identical to a bill that died last year during House Judiciary subcommittee hearings. Frank, who was a member of that subcommittee last year, said this week he decided to pursue the bill in light of the audits.
"I hear a lot of horror stories," Frank said. "I'm still going to work for it."