Health

Thursday, Oct 17 2013 07:00 PM

VA says its patient records weren't compromised

By LOIS HENRY Californian staff writer lhenry@bakersfield.com

Responding to allegations that a doctor had taken confidential patient records out of the Bakersfield Veterans Administration clinic, the VA announced Thursday that three separate investigations over the course of seven months showed that no such patient information had been "released into the community or abused in any way."

"We are confident that these results confirm that veterans in Bakersfield and Kern County did not have their personal information compromised," said David Holt, the VA Los Angeles associate director who was in Bakersfield Thursday to talk to the media and meet with veterans at the clinic just west of downtown Bakersfield.

He praised clinic staff for being vigilant and reporting their suspicions, but repeated several times that veterans had no cause for concern about their personal information.

Some of the original tipsters weren't convinced.

Two of the staffers who made the reports maintained that patient records were breached and they were unsurprised by what they felt was a continuing VA whitewash.

"The VA doesn't want anyone to know, the general public to know, that a VA employee could do this terrible HIPAA violation and they'll deny it forever because it makes them look bad," said JoAnn Van Horn, the former clinic site manager who has since retired.

HIPAA is a reference to federal laws that prohibit the release of private medial information.

Van Horn said she notified the Los Angeles VA office several times that medical records could be at risk based on reports from a security guard and others who said they saw a doctor taking boxes and even garbage bags filled with documents out of the clinic after hours.

"It was common knowledge among the people who worked late," she said.

Holt said he first heard of the allegations in October 2011 and reported them to the Los Angeles VA privacy officer who immediately launched an investigation.

The allegations were found to be unsubstantiated, he said.

Holt was again notified of a potential breach when the security guard caught the same doctor with a sheaf of papers stuffed in a magazine in the clinic parking lot in June 2012.

The guard confiscated the papers and showed them to Blanche Glasier, then a nurse at the clinic who has since retired.

Glasier determined that the papers contained sensitive patient information. Together the guard and Glasier put the papers in clinic manager Van Horn's office while the doctor, who has not been identified, reportedly created a scene in the parking lot yelling, demanding the papers back and even grabbing the security guard's arm.

Holt confirmed during Thursday's press conference that the incident did occur. At first, however, he said the papers did not contain private information and were patient schedules.

He later acknowledged the schedules included patient names, their diagnoses and their social security numbers.

Holt said all VA doctors, provided they've had appropriate training and have approval, are allowed to take such schedules home and can access them electronically via home computers.

The doctor did have approval to take patient schedules out of the VA facility. Holt said he didn't know -- despite three investigations -- whether the doctor had electronic access to those same schedules.

Holt said the investigations took seven months because they involved numerous interviews with employees and witnesses, some of whom he described as "resistant" and who had to be "compelled" to testify. He did not say whether computers and printers were confiscated or checked.

Clinic employees have told The Californian that, to their knowledge, no computers or other equipment was ever seized or examined.

While the doctor was not found to have compromised patient information, Holt said, he did violate VA policies.

"Excessive use of a copy machine," Holt said. "It was a minor violation."

Holt confirmed the doctor is no longer with the VA but refused to say whether he was fired. The security guard, meanwhile, employed by a private contractor, was let go.

All three investigations were completed last February, Holt said. He said the more than 7-month delay in notifying media and veterans was because he had to implement recommendations and take "administrative actions."

He didn't say what those recommendations and actions were, other than dealing with the copy machine misuse issue.

The three investigations were conducted by the Los Angeles VA, the Veterans Integrated Services Network, Region 22 (the regional office that oversees the Los Angeles VA), and the Department of Veterans Affairs Office of Inspector General.

Holt said members of the media would have to submit Freedom of Information Act requests to each of the three offices for additional details on the investigations.

Congressman Kevin McCarthy said he would continue to work with the Veterans Affairs oversight committee seeking answers.

"I want to see and review all the evidence that was collected in these investigations, and I want to make sure the VA has taken every possible action to ensure this situation never happens again," said McCarthy, R-Bakersfield. "No veteran should have to question if their privacy information and medical records are protected."

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