Thursday, March 4, 2010

Suing Regan

During the Hurricane Katrina relief effort I was employed on board a vessel in the Mississippi River housing workers from over 100 different local, state and federal authorities involved in the rebuilding process. Among these agencies using our vessel for shelter, showers, food and laundry was a detachment of 20 or so United States Public Health Service doctors and nurses.

During my night watches as they dragged themselves up the gangway after arduous days of providing medical care in the heat and stink of a submerged city I was educated in the history of the service. I was surprised to learn from these camouflaged army booted medical professionals that the PHS was the oldest uniformed service in the United States and that for 200 years merchant seaman could receive free medical treatment at any PHS hospital in the country. This government "handout" was ended by Ronald Reagan in 1982 leaving 5000 injured seaman to fend for themselves and shifted the burden of maintenance and cure squarely onto the Jones Act.

I was reminded by all of this when I ran across an article the other day by John Merriam, a lawyer in Seattle, entitled "Suing Ronald Regan: My first maritime case". If you've never heard of the PHS and what for 200 years was a standard of insurance for America's merchant seaman than certainly give it a read. It's even more relevant today given the debate over health care and our massive federal debt which Mr. Merriam reminds us how:

"During the first year of Reagan’s presidency, the national debt reached $1 trillion, the then-largest amount of indebtedness in American history. During Reagan’s eight years in office, the nation’s debt tripled. The poverty rate rose, even as the benefits of economic growth flowed to those in upper income brackets."

While suing the president was quite the start to a legal career for Mr. Merriam I'll never forget my first lesson in maritime law. A professor told my freshman class in Introduction to Marine Transportation as he had been doing for thirty years "Boys, even if you fall out the second story window of a brothel in Sicily the company still has to pay your doctor bills, until you can go back to work that is." This was duly noted by all.


  1. I remember going to the Brighton Marine Hospital with my dad, just outside of Boston when I was five or six. He had an irreparable back injury that ended his career at sea. They took good care of him until he was well enough for surgery to ease the pain.
    Funny thing about Reagan. He closed the PHS hospitals, but reinstated all the benefits for disabled vets that had been cut by the Carter Administration in his first term in office.
    I honestly think that the choices were the lesser of two evils- get injured or disabled vets VA care, or close the door on merchant seamen. Unfortunately, according to my father, there were a few bad apples that managed to 'injure' themselves on a regular basis to keep the benefits flowing. I think that was the nail in that particular coffin.

  2. Jeffrey, your birth was covered by PHS I made it under the wire. did't cost a penny thanks to my then called "Z" card.

  3. Mom...I had no idea. That's unbelievable and so ironically fitting given the circumstances!