The Health Beat Blog

Friday, Jul 06 2012 03:00 AM

LOIS HENRY: Something seems rotten at the VA facility here

By The Bakersfield Californian

Local veterans became alarmed last month after learning that a doctor at the Bakersfield Veterans Administration clinic had allegedly been taking confidential patient information including names, dates of birth, Social Security numbers, addresses, etc., out of the facility -- possibly over several years.

The VA wouldn't comment but numerous federal codes prohibit the removal of this kind of patient data from a facility. It's been an issue for the VA in the past, resulting in veterans becoming victims of identity theft. Other concerns are financial and insurance fraud.

Related Info

Record security

If you have questions about your medical records held by the Bakersfield's VA clinic, Janelle Happy, head of privacy with the VA Los Angeles, can be reached at: (310) 478-3711 extension 41513.

Or email her at: vhaglafoia@va.gov.

Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

An investigation is now underway, said officials at the Los Angeles VA hospital, which oversees the Bakersfield clinic, but in Bakersfield the feeling is, "what took so long?"

VA employees and others here told me they have been filing complaints and reports to L.A. for several years alleging similar behavior by the doctor and the VA has done nothing.

The VA's inertia so frustrated some of the people I spoke with that they finally sought out Congressman Kevin McCarthy, who fired off a letter to the Secretary of the VA earlier this week wanting to know what in the world was going on. Sources also contacted me, the FBI and others trying to shed some light on the situation.

So far, the only discernable action taken by the Los Angeles VA has been to fire the security guard who blew the whistle on the possible records breach June 1.

Everyone interviewed for this story asked not to be named for fear of retribution by the the VA, including veterans who feared their benefits might be curtailed if they were named.

But all the witnesses I spoke with corroborated what happened on June 1.

As the clinic was closing that day, witnesses said, a security guard approached the doctor in the parking lot and asked to see some papers the doctor had stuffed in a magazine.

Numerous sources identified the doctor, but the Los Angeles VA refused to confirm who it is investigating.

The doctor gave the guard the papers, which included the doctor's patient schedule for that day, according to witnesses who also saw the papers.

The schedule included patient names, Social Security numbers and the doctor's notes for what each patient had been seen for.

The guard confiscated the papers and the doctor reportedly became upset and yelled at the guard to give them back.

At one point, the guard walked away to speak with the driver of a van picking up veterans from the Los Angeles bus, witnesses said. The doctor reportedly grabbed the guard's arm and tried to snatch the papers back.

His incident report triggered a complaint to the Los Angeles VA, according to clinic employees.

On June 12, I was told, Veterans Administration executives from Los Angeles came to Bakersfield and met with clinic staff and more than 50 local veterans and confirmed the VA was investigating the possible removal of documents from the facility.

But nothing appeared to happen. The doctor was not put on leave. No employees or witnesses, except the security guard, were interviewed, no computers or other equipment that might leave a digital trail of who was accessing records were seized, according to employees and others.

The lack of action puzzled employees, who said this wasn't the first time the VA had been told this doctor was allegedly taking records.

And not just a few pages. The doctor has allegedly been seen taking armloads of papers, bankers boxes and even trash bags full of documents out of the clinic after hours.

With no apparent action from the VA, frustrated sources went to McCarthy in late June and he sent a letter to Gen. Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Veterans Affairs on July 2 asking for assistance.

I got wind of the story and started asking questions Tuesday morning.

Within a few hours of my contacting the Los Angeles VA, the security guard, who worked for a private contractor, was fired.

On Tuesday evening, outside the clinic, I was able to talk to the doctor who is at the center of all the talk.

I asked him several times if he had ever taken confidential patient information out of the clinic. He would only say that I needed to talk to the VA.

I also asked about the June 1 incident with the security guard.

"I don't know what you are talking about," he said.

It seems clear to many that the Los Angeles VA would like to keep a lid on what's happening in Bakersfield, but that may not be possible. After getting fed up with the lack of action from the Los Angeles VA, my sources said they took their complaints to the FBI, Social Security, Office of Inspector General and others.

Good.

Someone needs to get to the bottom of this and clearly the Los Angeles VA is doing what it does best, moving at VA speed while our veterans twist in the wind.

There may be a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a doctor would allegedly take boxes of patient information out of a clinic.

So far, that explanation has not materialized.

Certainly we can do better for the veterans of this community.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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