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Malpractice Suit Raises Questions About Congress' Doctor

LaTourette intends to sue for medical malpractice. (Tom Williams/Roll Call File Photo)

A former lawmaker looking to sue the U.S. government for alleged medical malpractice has raised questions about the extent and nature of care by the Office of the Attending Physician.

Former Rep. Steven C. LaTourette is accusing the Office of the Attending Physician, which oversees medical care for Congress and the Supreme Court, of negligence surrounding his cancer diagnosis, according to court documents first reported by the National Law Journal.

The Ohio Republican was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer after he left Congress in 2013, and court documents revealed the prognosis is "uncertain, yet grave." The former congressman alleged that the Office of the Attending Physician failed to conduct a follow-up assessment or inform him when a 2012 MRI revealed he had a lesion on his pancreas.

In the documents, LaTourette noted the Office of the Attending Physician provided his primary medical care throughout his nine terms in Congress. His attorney, Patrick Regan, told CQ Roll Call on May 28 he did not know whether LaTourette had an outside physician during that time.

LaTourette alleged that in 2012, an MRI at George Washington University Hospital revealed a lesion on his pancreas, and the GWU radiologist discussed the MRI with an OAP physician and recommended LaTourette have a follow-up appointment in six months. But, court documents state, "No follow-up studies were ordered or performed by any OAP physician, and Mr. LaTourette was never informed of the MRI results or recommendation for follow-up."

LaTourette is now seriously ill with pancreatic cancer and his lawyers are working to record his deposition in the next two or three weeks, in case he cannot testify in the lawsuit expected to be filed in the fall.

Beyond the impending lawsuit, the allegations raise questions about why the Office of the Attending Physician — which is charged with providing urgent care to lawmakers, staffers, Capitol Police officers, visitors and Supreme Court justices — was also providing primary medical care to the congressman.

According to the OAP internal website, the office provides staff with emergency treatment, first aid, immunizations, flu vaccinations and physician referrals. But members of Congress can enroll in "additional services" with the OAP by paying an annual fee. The 2015 medical services enrollment form indicated the annual fee was $596.

A 2001 Congressional Research Service report on the OAP noted that members of Congress who enroll in those additional services or "routine care" are also provided "laboratory, X-ray, physical therapy, and electrocardiographic services, as well as 24-hour assistance and referral."

The OAP and the Committee on House Administration did not return requests for comment on the nature of medical care provided to members and the number of lawmakers enrolled in the additional medical care.

Regan did not know whether LaTourette paid the annual fee for additional care, which was instituted in 1992. When asked about the OAP providing primary care, Regan said, "I suspect that the vast majority [of members of Congress] receive their primary care in D.C. from that office.”

Regan also did not know which doctors at the OAP were involved in LaTourette's case. "As we go through discovery, we’ll find out who was responsible for following up and who failed to do that,” he said.

Rear Adm. Brian P. Monahan has been the attending physician since 2009, and heads the office, which operates 10 clinics throughout the Capitol, House and Senate office buildings, and the Capitol Visitor Center.

Monahan received his medical degree from Georgetown University in 1986 and is certified in internal medicine, hematology and medical oncology, with experience in cancer research. According to legislative branch spending for the current fiscal year, the office employs Monahan, a senior medical officer and three medical officers, and funding allows for more than a dozen assistants.

LaTourette's suit is not the first time Congress' doctor has been accused of malpractice. In 1986, Sen. John East, R-N.C., committed suicide and accused the attending physician of failing to diagnose a thyroid problem related to his depression in his suicide note.

East's widow then sued the government, and the allegations led to the retirement of the attending physician at the time, Rear. Adm. Freeman Cary. In 1990, a judge ruled that government doctors were not responsible for East's death.

Regan was not discouraged by the previous lawsuit regarding the attending physician. "This case is going to rise and fall on its own merits," Regan said. "And all of the experts who have looked at this at our request … have said it’s essentially inexcusable negligence."

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