Systemic Neglect in Military Hospitals and Patient’s Right to Sue 

The bad news on medical care for our armed forces just keeps getting worse.  Following up on the revelations regarding extensive waiting times and secret waiting lists at the VA Hospital, a new investigation from the New York Times reveals some equally disturbing patterns of neglect at our military hospitals.

Findings of Systemic Neglect in Military Hospital Medical Care 

The New York Times investigation found the military hospital network was wrought with “persistent lapses in protecting patients.”  The investigation found further that  “scrutiny is sporadic and avoidable errors are chronic” in the military hospital network.

The investigation found that the system was particularly lacking in two critical areas of care, surgery and maternity care.   However, a number of the actual incidents of negligence noted in the report were related to diagnostic error, which plagues the non-military hospitals as well.

In any event, these findings are troubling in light of the fact that 1.6 million active-duty military are treated each year in these hospitals.  With higher than average rates of medical error and neglect, it follows that active-duty service military and their families are receiving less than adequate medical care.

VA Hospital v. Military Hospital Systems 

First, it is important to understand the difference between the VA Hospital and Military Hospital systems.  The difference can affect the injured patient’s rights to recover for medical malpractice.

The VA Hospital system is run through the Department of Veteran Affairs.  As the name and management suggest, the VA Hospital system was created to serve veterans.  Medical malpractice claims against VA Hospitals are governed by the rules under the Federal Tort Claims Act.

On the other hand, the Military Hospital system is run through the Department of Defense.  Military hospitals serve active-duty military and their families.  Because these hospitals are under the Department of Defense, there are special rules above and beyond the Federal Tort Claims Act.

Feres Doctrine 

The Feres Doctrine is a long-standing law that prohibits active-duty military from filing suit against the government for injuries suffered during service.  The prohibitions under the Feres Doctrine apply to medical malpractice claims against military hospitals.

In short, this means that an active-duty service member cannot sue for medical malpractice no matter how severe the medical negligence.  The Feres Doctrine is grossly unfair and disrespectful of our active-duty military.  Our military deserves better—but so long as the Feres Doctrine stands, they will not get it in medical services or in the courts following negligent medical care.  In fact, it might be argued that the Feres Doctrine itself contributes to the deficiencies in care since there are no consequences for errors even in case of gross negligence.

Feres Doctrine Does Not Apply to Family Members 

The above-discussion is clearly not good news for active-duty service members.  However, it should be noted that the Feres Doctrine applies only to active-duty military, not their spouses or children.

In light of the number of family members that are treated and the rates of medical error in the military hospital system, it is safe to say that many innocent spouses and children are harmed by negligent medical care.

For instance, the New York Times investigation found that 50,000 babies are born each year in the military hospital system.  Couple this with the fact that maternity care is one problem area of care and you have a recipe for disastrous and unnecessary harm to the service member’s spouse and children.

Federal Tort Claims Act Governs Claims by Family Members 

Unlike active-duty military, family members may bring claims against military hospitals under the Federal Tort Claims Act.  The Federal Tort Claims Act has a number of significant requirements and deadlines.

The deadlines on claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act are shorter than on claims against private medical providers.  Missing a deadline or failing to abide by other requirements under the Act will bar the claim completely.

Do Not Delay – Seek Legal Guidance 

Medical malpractice claims on the whole are quite complicated.  They can take months to evaluate.  In fact, it can take months to collect the necessary medical records to begin the evaluation process.

Because the deadlines are short on medical malpractice claims under the Federal Tort Claims Act, it is very important to contact an experienced medical malpractice attorney as soon as you believe you or a loved one has been harmed by medical negligence in a military hospital.

It is rarely if ever beneficial to delay.  Delay can be fatal to a claim—with a missed deadline barring the claim completely.

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