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Can troops sue the US for medical negligence?

Our troops are constantly at risk while they are on active duty. Should they be put in additional risk when they are under the care of federal doctors and hospitals?

When our soldiers are wounded, we expect at least the same level of medical care as regular citizens. Unfortunately, active duty soldiers and veterans getting treated in federal hospitals in Connecticut and nationwide, are unable to pursue legal action when they suffer from medical negligence.

A retired airman filed a claim in Texas last week against the U.S. government claiming that federal doctors had so badly botched his gallbladder procedure in June of 2009 that his legs had to be amputated to save his life. Normally, a patient would be able to pursue a claim against all negligent individuals and entities, including the doctors and the hospital. Because he was a soldier in a military hospital, his case is not likely to succeed.

This case will probably be dismissed under the "Feres Doctrine," a 60-year-old legal precedent which places very strict limitations on the ability of active-duty personnel to sue military doctors for medical negligence. It is one of many challenges to the doctrine, which prevents any legal action against doctors, hospitals and other medical professionals who would otherwise be liable for negligent practices and procedures.

The Supreme Court has historically steered away from "Feres" cases, upholding the doctrine and insulating federal doctors and hospitals from medical negligence liability. Critics of medical malpractice claims for veterans and military members point to lack of funding to pay out, increased premiums for malpractice insurance, as well as the complex nature of treating soldiers while in combat.

What do you think? Should military members be able to sue their doctors for negligence? Does a veterans' hospital have a higher standard of care than a doctor providing care in a war zone or during combat?

Source: Stars and Stripes, "Should troops get the right to sue the US for medical malpractice?," April 1, 2012.

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