A high-ranking Pentagon lawyer has concluded that military hospitals that perform elective cosmetic surgeries are violating a 1979 law prohibiting unnecessary operations.
The Times reported last month that military doctors worldwide were performing hundreds of cosmetic surgeries at taxpayers' expense, even though such surgeries are rarely covered by private health insurance or military health insurance.
Military officials say they expect regulations to be tightened as a result of the Pentagon legal review, significantly reducing the number of cosmetic surgeries, including liposuctions and nose jobs, that are performed.
While acknowledging that the language of a 1979 law is not entirely clear, Department of Defense Assistant General Counsel Robert L. Gilliat said: "The law prohibits the general provision of elective cosmetic surgery--there is some interpretation."
In a memo dated July 5, Gilliat wrote that the "better interpretation of the current statutory restriction would exclude many of the cosmetic surgeries now being performed."
This memo, prompted by newspaper reports of the cosmetic surgeries, is being reviewed by the Department of Defense's Health Affairs Office, which will determine whether to change regulations. Another Washington official, who declined to be named, said a decision is expected this week.
In San Diego alone, 544 cosmetic surgeries were performed at the Naval Hospital during the last two years. Hospital officials have defended these operations, saying that they enable surgeons to hone and maintain their skills. And they say such surgeries allow young doctors to pass their certification examinations.
"I still feel cosmetic surgery has a valid role to play in our teaching hospital," said Rear Adm. Robert Halder, commanding officer of the hospital, which has three plastic surgeons. Halder said he was unaware of any new policy but added: "I will await further guidance. I don't want to speculate on what they are going to say. When my boss gives me orders, I follow it."
Critics of the elective cosmetic surgery say that taxpayers should not pay for military personnel to improve their faces and physiques at a time when the government is trying to cut military spending.
"It's inappropriate to spend taxpayers' dollars on medical operations that essentially are designed to allow people to be more stylish rather than to provide real, substantive medical benefits," Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Coronado) had told the Times.
Some in the military said they were angry that active-duty personnel sometimes stayed out of work anywhere from several days to several weeks as they recuperated from beauty-enhancing surgery.
"Is this truly a valid reason to miss work? I don't think so," said one official, who requested anonymity and added that he had lost one staff member for seven weeks while she recuperated from aesthetic surgery to her jaw.