Do you think Congress really cares about those who serve in the military? I’m of several minds here. First the good news. Over the weekend, “House and Senate negotiators reached agreement … on a legislative package intended to stabilize the Department of Veterans Affairs’ sprawling and embattled health care system.” Writes the New York Times,
The legislation is expected to include provisions for emergency relief that would allow veterans who live far from a V.A. facility or who face wait times that exceed a certain duration to see private doctors, and have those visits paid for by the government. The measure is also expected to set aside billions of dollars to hire new doctors and nurses; build or lease dozens of additional buildings needed to treat patients; and upgrade the department’s outdated scheduling system.
So, some action for vets. But still no congressional help for those serving in the military who are victims of negligent health care. As we’ve noted on this blog several times, the Feres Doctrine, “a 60-year-old policy that effectively bars U.S. military personnel from suing the government for injuries caused by the negligence of others in the armed forces … has been interpreted to extinguish the legal rights of those who serve in war and survive, only to return home but are seriously injured as a result of gross medical malpractice by military health care providers.” Congress has, so far, refused to fix this terrible injustice.
The SCRA provides a wide range of protections for individuals entering, called to active duty in the military, or deployed servicemembers. It is intended to postpone or suspend certain civil obligations to enable service members to devote full attention to duty and relieve stress on the family members of those deployed servicemembers. A few examples of such obligations you may be protected against are: Outstanding credit card debt; Mortgage payments; Pending trials; Taxes; and Terminations of leases.
Problem is, the law contains some significant loopholes. ProPublica has just published a very sad investigative piece called, “Thank You for Your Service: How One Company Sues Soldiers Worldwide.” A company called USA Discounters targets military families for predatory loans. That shouldn’t happen but it does. They write:
[The company’s] easy lending has a flip side. Should customers fall behind, the company transforms into an efficient collection operation. And this part of its business takes place not where customers bought their appliances, but in two local courthouses just a short drive from the company's Virginia Beach headquarters. A USA Discounters location in Norfolk, VA. The retailer has locations near military bases across the country, but uses the local courts near its Virginia headquarters to file lawsuits against service members who fall behind on their loans.
From there, USA Discounters files lawsuits against service members based anywhere in the world, no matter how much inconvenience or expense they would incur to attend a Virginia court date. Since 2006, the company has filed more than 13,470 suits and almost always wins, records show.
"They're basically ruthless," said Army Staff Sgt. David Ray, who was sued in Virginia while based in Germany over purchases he made at a store in Georgia.…
The federal Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, or SCRA, was designed to give active-duty members of the armed forces every opportunity to defend themselves against lawsuits. But the law has a loophole; it doesn't address where plaintiffs can sue. That's allowed USA Discounters to sue out-of-state borrowers in Virginia, where companies can file suit as long as some aspect of the business was transacted in the state.
The company routinely argues that it meets that requirement through contract clauses that state any lawsuit will take place in Virginia. Judges have agreed.
And here’s another loophole, which Congress need to fix. These contracts typically contain forced arbitration clauses so if a victimized service member wants to take this or any other company to court, they can’t. See Public Citizen’s great report on this pervasive and unjust problem.
Congress, your turn.