Jessica Purcell of St. Petersburg, a captain in the Army Reserve, was pregnant with son Jameson when she was told at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic not to worry about lumps under her arm. She now is diagnosed stage 4 cancer. Jameson is 10 months old. (Tampa Bay Times/Scott Keeler via Tribune News Service)

Jessica Purcell, a captain in the U.S. Army Reserve, was pregnant with her first child when she noticed a swollen lymph node in her left underarm.

Health-care providers at a MacDill Air Force Base clinic told her it was likely an infection or something related to pregnancy hormones. The following year they determined the issue had resolved itself.

It hadn't. A doctor off base found a large mass in her underarm and gave her a shocking diagnosis: stage 2 breast cancer.

Purcell was pregnant again. Her daughter had just turned 1. She was 35. And she had no right to sue for malpractice.

A 1950 Supreme Court ruling known as the Feres doctrine prohibits military members like Purcell from filing a lawsuit against the federal government for any injuries suffered while on active duty. That includes injury in combat, but also rape and medical malpractice, such as missing a cancer diagnosis.

Thanks in part to Tampa lawyer Natalie Khawam, a provision in this year's national defense budget allows those in active duty to file medical malpractice claims against the government for the first time since the Feres case.

With the Department of Defense overseeing the new claims process, the question now is how fairly and timely complaints will be judged. And whether, in the long run, this new move will help growing efforts to overturn the ruling and allow active duty members to sue like everyone else.

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Sailors assigned to the U.S. Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort (T- AH 20) treat a patient in casualty receiving aboard the ship. (U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Stephane Belcher)

The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act would allow service members to seek compensation when military doctors make mistakes that harm them, but they would still be unable to file medical malpractice lawsuits against the federal government.

On Monday night, Congress announced that it had finalized the NDAA, which must be passed by the House and Senate before going to President Donald Trump. If the president signs the NDAA into law, it would mark the first time in nearly seven decades that U.S. military personnel have had legal recourse to seek payment from the military in cases of medical malpractice.

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Sen. Rick Scott is backing a bipartisan bill that would allow service members to essentially sue the United States government for medical malpractice if they are injured in the care of military doctors.

The measure has already passed the House and it has been introduced in the Senate, where Scott says he will sign on as a co-sponsor.

"As a U.S. Senator and member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, taking care of our military members, veterans and their families is my top priority," the Florida Republican said in a statement.

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William Jennings Bryan Dorn Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Columbia, South Carolina (Facebook)

A Navy veteran who sued Dorn Veterans Hospital for allegedly failing to diagnose and promptly treat him when he came to the hospital sick has gotten $150,000 in a settlement of his medical malpractice lawsuit.

"I didn't expect any money out of this," said Eric Walker, 49, of Camden, the Navy veteran. "It was mainly about what can we do to make the VA better. What can we do to keep this from happening again?"

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Dying of cancer, this Green Beret has one last mission: Getting Congress to fight for military medical malpractice reform

"You think you're limited on time? You ought to talk to me about limited time."

Analysis

Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal is dying.

The 38-year-old Green Beret's cancer was missed by Army care providers in 2017, and is now terminal. For the last year he's been fighting to change a decades-old legal rule known as the Feres Doctrine, which bars Stayskal and his family from suing the government for the alleged medical malpractice.

That's why, on Sept. 9 and 10, instead of being home in Pinehurst, North Carolina, with his wife and two daughters, Stayskal was in Washington, D.C. trying to drum up support for his namesake legislation, the SFC Richard Stayskal Military Medical Accountability Act, which would allow service members to sue the government for certain medical malpractice incidents.

Over two days, Stayskal and his attorney, Natalie Khawam, visited the offices of eight senators — Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), John Neely Kennedy (R-La.), Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

They had face time with none of them.

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On Tuesday Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) introduced bipartisan legislation that would allow service members to sue the government for military medical malpractice.

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