The news is not surprising, but still shocking: the nation’s military medicine system is rife with lapses in quality of care that hurt service members and their families, and very little is being done about it, according to a long investigative takeout in the New York Times.
I say not surprising, because attorneys like me who represent military families in medical malpractice lawsuits against the government for sub-standard care see a lot of the kinds of problems documented in the Times article.
Pregnancy and newborn care is especially vulnerable to errors that can have lifelong consequences when children are born with brain damage. The Times investigators reported that of the 50,000 babies born at military hospitals each year, they are twice as likely to be injured during delivery as the average for all newborns around the U.S.
Perhaps the most shocking thing the Times found is the lack of accountability and followup when patients are injured in the military system. In non-military hospitals, there is at least some effort made with what is called “root cause analysis” to get to the bottom of errors and try to prevent future harm.
Dr. Mary Lopez, a former staff officer under the Army surgeon general, told the Times:
“The patient-safety system is broken. It has no teeth. Reports are submitted, but patient-safety offices have no authority.”
One problem the public doesn’t grasp is that the military is immune from lawsuits when an active duty service member is injured by malpractice, even if the harm occurs thousands of miles from any battle front. That immunity stems from a 1950 U.S. Supreme Court case called Feres v. United States. Congress could pass a law overriding this judge-made immunity but has never done so. Meantime, there is a double-standard system: If a family member of a soldier or sailor is hurt by malpractice, they have a right to sue under the Federal Tort Claims Act. But a service member cannot sue.
That insulates the military medical system from a lot of the accountability that lawsuits could otherwise bring to the poor quality care.