Because of a 1950 Supreme Court ruling called the Feres Doctrine, active-duty military personnel and their families are prohibited from suing the federal government for injuries unrelated specifically to military service. Practically, this means that military personnel, unlike every other US citizen, can’t sue the federal government for medical malpractice.
Last week, the Feres Doctrine came once again into the spotlight when the family of Sgt. Carmelo Rodriguez, a Marine who died at 29 from skin cancer that went undiagnosed by military doctors for nearly nine years, testified before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law.
"Carmelo wanted his story to be heard, even if his life couldn’t be saved. He wanted to ensure that what happened to him would not happen to another service member," Ivette Rodriguez [Carmelo’s sister] said.
With help from Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-N.Y., Rodriguez is asking for a law to reverse a 59-year-old Supreme Court decision and give her family and other members of the military the ability to sue the government for medical malpractice. –Alex Hering, Kansas City InfoZine
In 1997, when Rodriguez enlisted in the Marines, his medical examination revealed melanoma on his left buttock. The military doctor neither informed Rodriguez nor referred him to a specialist. Over the next eight years, the melanoma grew and spread until, while serving in Iraq, Rodriguez asked for military doctors to examine it again. This time, they told him it was a wart, and recommended that he seek further care upon returning to the US. By the time a non-military doctor saw him, Rodriguez’s condition had developed into stage 3 malignant melanoma, which, despite three surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, killed him 18 months later. Rodriguez died holding the hand of his 7-year-old son.
Rep. Hinchey introduced the Carmelo Rodriguez Military Medical Accountability Act of 2009 to reverse the ruling and give families and service members the ability to hold the military accountable for "negligent" medical care.
"In the opinion of the subcommittee, how could it be possible that, of all Americans, members of the military and their families are left no recourse in the face of such medical negligence?" Hinchey asked the committee.
He said that, because of the shortfall of doctors, nurses and other health care staff, it is the military’s responsibility to have doctors who are trained in non-combat injuries, such as skin cancer. Hinchey referred to 10 military families who shared in the same fruitless battle as the Rodriguez family.
Near the end of the hearing, Ivette Rodriguez reminded the committee that the person who misdiagnosed her brother continues to work.
"I hear a lot of suing and guilt and blame," Rodriguez said. "That’s not why my family is here. We are here for the military to be accountable. Every day, my brother is not here with us."
Hopefully, the Obama Department of Justice will work to end the totally unfair Feres Doctrine. Congress has yet to vote on the Carmelo Rodriguez Military Medical Accountability Act of 2009. Please contact your Senators and Representatives to voice your support for this crucial legislation. Our honorable servicemen and women deserve quality health care for the sacrifices they make for us. We can’t let one more family lose a child, brother or sister to military medical negligence.