and hours of testimony from men and women who said they had received inept military care and had no hope of legal recourse -- Justice and Defense department officials said yesterday they believed that no law should be passed to allow active servicemen to sue for medical malpractice.
"We can be concerned and moved by the testimony this committee has heard . . . but the question this committee has to face is whether a change in tort law can adequately address the problem" of medical mishaps, Richard Willard, acting assistant attorney general, told a House Judiciary subcommittee.
The subcommittee is considering a bill submitted by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) to get around a 1950 Supreme Court ruling that bars servicemen from suing for any injury received while on active duty. Frank said yesterday that the provision known as the Feres Doctrine should be changed to allow active servicemen to sue the government for malpractice claims in an effort to force accountability on the part of the military's medical system.
"I think you have a serious problem," Frank said after Willard's testimony. "You're basically just telling us that everybody should just work harder . . . and I don't think that is very helpful."
Willard, Defense Department counsel Chapman Cox and Dr. Jarrett Clinton, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for professional affairs and quality assurance, stressed yesterday that allowing suits against the government would do little to improve health care in the military and could cost taxpayers substantial sums.
"My concern is this legislation would result in a flood of litigation," Willard said. "I think the focus ought not to be on the after-the-fact compensation but what is going on in the system itself."
Military health care has been a subject of controversy for several months since an unprecedented series of audits by the Army, Navy and Air Force and the inspector general found that military hospitals were not following many health standards established by the Defense Department. Since February, the Defense Department has ordered the three services to follow specific guidelines for monitoring the performance of their medical staffs.
Yesterday, Clinton outlined some of those new procedures, such as a requirement that doctors review their peers' performance every six months. He submitted testimony about a new computer system, to be installed in every military medical facility by the end of the year, that will help provide up-to-date information on medical personnel.
"I believe that the Department of Defense has initiated a number of significant changes that will result in the overall improvement of patient care," Clinton said.
Cox, who said he agreed that "malpractice is a menace," told congressmen yesterday that the proposed bill "would foster divisiveness within military units and increase personnel cost. It would also put the judiciary in the position of imposing unpredictable and unlimited money judgment upon the taxpayer."
But Judy Williams, the widow of Marine Lt. Col. Joseph Williams, who died from an unchecked strep infection in February 1984, said the threat of a lawsuit might make the government and its doctors assess health care more carefully.
"The chief problem . . . is no one is held accountable," the 35-year-old elementary teacher from Virginia Beach said. "The doctors realize that they and their careers are protected, and they have no reason to feel obligated to their patients." The Feres Doctrine, she said, "just shelters incompetence in military medicine."