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Alleged Malpractice Victims Seek Right-to-Sue Bill

July 8, 1985

WASHINGTON (AP) _ A sailor who lost part of his skull, a former Navy woman who cannot become pregnant, two widows and a seaman’s mother told a House panel Monday they ought to have the right to sue to force military doctors to be accountable for mistakes.

″We are treated with utter contempt by the Pentagon and the Defense Department because they are secure in the knowledge we have no legal rights,″ said Doreen Forsman, widow of Maj. Gen. Billy B. Forsman, who was a top Air Force intelligence officer until he died from cancer.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has sponsored a bill to give active duty military personnel the right to sue in cases of military malpractice.

Rep. Dan Glickman, D-Kan., chairman of the House Judiciary subcommittee on administrative law and governmental relations, said existing federal law prevents military personnel from suing for malpractice that occurs in a military hospital while they are on active duty.

The right is denied only to active duty personnel. Dependents and military retirees already can sue if they are mistreated by military doctors.

″We need to extend to active duty members of the armed services the right to be protected as much as can be against medical malpractice,″ Frank said. The fear of being sued would help keep doctors on their toes and would force the Pentagon to be more careful in hiring doctors, he suggested.

Forsman, director of intelligence at the U.S. European Command, died Nov. 15, 1981, and Mrs. Forsman blamed Air Force doctors for failing to diagnose his cancer earlier.

An Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Jim Moore, said in a telephone interview that an investigation by the service’s inspector general did not support Mrs. Forsman’s allegations.

Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Doyle Stanley of Norfolk, Va., told the subcommittee he has to wear a protective helmet most of the time because his forehead bone was removed because of an infection that followed surgery at a Navy hospital for a sinus problem.

Stanley said he is being treated by a civilian doctor now, with the permission of Navy Secretary John Lehman, because he doesn’t trust Navy medicine any more.

″The free medical care wasn’t doing me much good, sir,″ he told Glickman.

Stanley said he felt the complications could have been avoided if the staph infection had been diagnosed earlier.

Dawn Lambert, an honorably discharged Navy veteran, said the treatment she received for a pregnancy in a fallopian tube left her unable to conceive normally.

Mrs. Lambert, also from the Norfolk area, said sponges were left inside her during the operation for the fallopian pregnancy and the mistake wasn’t discovered until she went to civilian doctors for help.

″I just don’t understand how on your own you can volunteer yourself for the service and they can say they have no obligation to you, not even a moral responsibility,″ she said.

Mrs. Lambert said she ran up $12,000 in medical bills getting treated after her discharge from the service, bills the Navy only recently offered to pay. She also received a 10 percent disability, worth $66 a month.

Linda Branch, widow of Air Force Tech. Sgt. Albert Branch, said her husband died last year when a military doctor misdiagnosed a strangulated intestine as stomach flu.

Dorothy O. Meagher testified that her son, Jerry, has been a brain-damaged quadraplegic for 11 years because of complications from an operation to remove a cyst on his arm when he was in the Navy.

Frank and Glickman said representatives of the Defense and Justice departments were scheduled to testify at a continuation of the hearing on Tuesday and would be asked then to respond to Monday’s testimony.

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