WASHINGTON (SBG) — Dozens of families are waiting for the chance to hold the military accountable for medical malpractice, two years after a law promised change. But an ongoing Spotlight on America investigation discovered political red tape and government delays are blocking their efforts. Now, we're asking for answers as a U.S. Congresswoman is vowing to end the holdup.
Suzanne Way has struggled to find solace after the death of her son, Jordan, a Navy veteran and an avid fisherman. Her family honors his memory with a pond placed outside their Maryland home. But Jordan Way wasn't killed in combat; he died after routine shoulder surgery at a Navy hospital in 2017. Records obtained as part of a 2019 Spotlight on America investigation show he was prescribed increasingly large doses of painkillers as his blood sugar dropped critically low. Jordan Way's cause of death was officially listed as opioid toxicity.
Since his death, Spotlight on America has followed Suzanne and her husband Dana's fight for accountability for medical malpractice.
"There's not a going to be a day we stop. That will continue to go on until my dying days," father Dana Way told Spotlight on America. "My son's death is not going to be in vain because of negligence."
The first challenge for the Way family was a decades-old law known as the Feres Doctrine, which had banned service members and their families from suing the government for malpractice. But that changed in 2019, when Congress added a provision to the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would allow service members to seek compensation.
Dana and Suzanne Way celebrated the change and filed a claim. Fast forward to today, and there's still been no action. Suzanne Way told us, "Congress did their job. They heard the people. The people said, 'Make this happen. Do what's right for our active service members.' So, Congress creates a law. They tell DOD to do it. But they haven't done it."
The Ways' claim, and dozens of others like it, have languished in limbo as the military comes up with the policy for making payouts. Spotlight on America discovered the process has dragged on months longer thanks to political red tape. The Pentagon, we're told, laid out the framework for potential payouts before the end of last year, but it never moved along. Suzanne Way says she is beyond frustrated, "Is Congress going to hold the Department of Defense accountable? Because they’re absolutely not doing what they have been told, mandated to do. They failed me. They failed my son."
The Ways are not alone in their frustration. Dozens of families are anxiously awaiting the final rule from the Department of Defense, which is currently under regulatory review by the White House's Office of Management and Budget. A finalized rule is expected next month.
But while the rule is evaluated, malpractice claims are piling up. Spotlight on America is aware of at least 140 claims that have been filed by just one law firm alone, Khawam Ripka, based in Washington, D.C.. Attorney Alan Ripka tells us their claims seek approximately $900 million in damages from the government. Ripka said he's anxious to see the finalized rule that will impact hundreds of people, telling us, "My hope is that the guidelines are published expeditiously and provide a forum of fairness and recourse."
Spotlight on America repeatedly asked the Department of Defense to provide a total number of claims filed for military malpractice since the change in law went into effect in 2019. We also asked for a dollar figure on the total of those claims. Our questions have gone unanswered. Our team also submitted federal Freedom of Information Act requests to each individual branch of military service, seeking similar information. We've been told responses to those requests could take months.
But some have said the total number of malpractice claims filed with the DoD double the amount we're aware of. According to a published report in Bloomberg Government, more than 200 claims have been filed with the military, with the total potential liability for the government inching toward $2 billion.
For Congresswoman Jackie Speier, D-Cali., who has long led the fight to let service members and their families seek justice for military malpractice, the delay is unacceptable. "I am pounding the Department of Defense on a weekly basis," Speier told us. "Where are the regulations? They were supposed to be out in September."
Rep. Speier says the Trump Administration dropped the ball when it comes to getting the rule finished, and it should be criticized for that failure. Last October, she sent a letter to then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, calling out the military's inability to answer her inquires, writing, "This lack of responsiveness to basic questions about the status of an overdue rule is entirely unacceptable."
Congresswoman Speier says that if progress isn’t made to start processing claims in June, she will consider additional legislation in the NDAA to force the Department of Defense to act.
"Help is on the way," Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., told us when it comes to getting accountability for families making medical malpractice claims against the military. "The wheels of the federal government move slowly. I don't like it. It really bothers me. But I want it to move forward and so we're doing what we can to hold them accountable."
For the Ways, it's not about a payout, but a bigger message. "Nobody wants the money," father Dana Way told us. "The money never brings your child back. It's always about accountability."
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