(NewsNation) — More than two years after a Green Beret master sergeant helped overturn a rule that blocked active duty service members from suing the federal government for medical malpractice in military facilities, almost nobody has been paid, including him.
Now, the Purple Heart recipient Richard Stayskal is running out of time. The husband and father of two has terminal Stage IV lung cancer — a diagnosis his doctors initially missed.
In January 2017, Stayskal started coughing up blood. He went to the Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, where military doctors diagnosed him with pneumonia. Six months later, as symptoms persisted, he visited a civilian physician who broke the news: he had been misdiagnosed.
Doctors had missed a mass on his lung that appeared on a previous scan. Now, the situation was far more serious. He had metastatic lung cancer.
Faced with almost certain death, Stayskal went looking for answers from the military, but the response, he says, was indifference.
“It was upsetting,” Stayskal told NewsNation. “[The doctor] probably could have set aside his rank for a second and given me a hug and a handshake and said, ‘I’m so sorry. I’m going to look into this’ and we’d never be here.”
That was the catalyst that sent Stayskal to testify on Capitol Hill, fighting a 1950 Supreme Court decision that prevented active duty service members from suing the federal government for medical malpractice.
An old rule, called the Feres Doctrine, was intended to protect the Department of Defense from bad medical decisions in tense combat situations but ultimately extended to all aspects of the military’s medical system.
Effectively blocked from justice, Stayskal went to Washington, D.C., and testified before Congress, sharing the story of the negligence that will likely cost him his life.
“It’s a mistake that allowed an aggressive tumor to double in size that robbed my life and the life of my family,” Stayskal said before Congress in 2019. “When my children say ‘Why is this happening?’ … there’s no good answer. That’s why I am up here before you.”
Over a year later, he won.
In 2019, Congress passed the Richard Stayskal Military Accountability Act, authorizing $400 million over the next decade for the Department of Defense to pay out malpractice claims such as Stayskal’s.
For the first time, active duty members of the military could seek restitution for malpractice suffered at DOD medical facilities in certain cases.
But since the interim rule took effect last July, hundreds are still waiting for compensation, including the bill’s namesake, Stayskal himself.
In fact, if Stayskal dies before the Department of Defense pays his claim, his wife won’t be supported; only his two daughters will be eligible.
“You know, it’s like you’re pulling away from life again, and I kind of thought it was over with all that,” Stayskal says.
He and his lawyer are back in Washington this week, pushing the DOD to answer for the delayed payments.
“They’re just waiting for them to die off and it’s wrong. And I’m here now to just say it’s not going to happen anymore,” says attorney Natalie Khawam.
In response to questions from NewsNation, the Pentagon issued this statement:
“There is no “typical” or “normal” processing time for a medical malpractice claim. Medical malpractice claims often involve the review of voluminous medical records and other evidence, as well as interviews of medical providers, claimants, witnesses, and expert medical consultants. The time taken to process any claim depends upon the complexity of the facts. The Army is in regular communication with MSG Stayskal’s counsel as it continues to work the claim to completion.”
On Wednesday, NewsNation asked Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby why money had been slow to get to victims and if there were plans to expedite the process.
“Nothing is more important to the secretary than the health and well-being of our people and their families — that’s a sacred obligation. But we have to follow the law and we absolutely do in every case,” said Kirby.