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The Department of Veteran Affairs has come under increasing criticism in recent weeks for privacy and potential HIPAA violations. The White House Office of Special Counsel initiated an investigation into the VA for veteran privacy breaches, and now the Department of Health and Human Services has taken the decision to start an investigation, this time for potential VA HIPAA violations caused when the medical records of a whistleblower were allegedly accessed in retaliation for the disclosure of VA privacy violations.
This week, whistleblower Brandon Coleman received a notification from the HHS of an investigation into a complaint he made of inappropriate and unauthorized accessing of his confidential medical files by the VA. He was informed that the HHS had started an investigation into his privacy complaint on May 1, 2015. He claimed the privacy violation occurred in an effort to intimidate him for giving evidence against the VA.
Two weeks ago, in a Senate hearing, Coleman and other whistleblowers accused the VA of conducting smear campaigns which involved VA staff accessing the medical records of the whistleblowers with a view to using information against them. Coleman, a counselor with the Phoenix VA Health System, said at the hearing, “On Jan. 20, 2015, I was pulled into a meeting with my section chief, Dr. Carlos Carrera, where he questioned my mental health.” He went on to say, “I told him that in three years he never once questioned my mental health, but now that I’m a whistleblower he is worried about my mental health? The timing was highly suspect.” In that meeting he was questioned about visiting a psychiatrist following an honorable discharge from the Marines in 1994.
He had been told that if he needed to return to the center for treatment that he would need a police escort, suggesting Coleman had “an unstable mindset.” Coleman had previously testified that he witnessed veterans being turned away for treatment, in spite of them feeling suicidal, and claims that at times, the only member of staff present in the VA center in question was a janitor.
This is not the only incident of alleged intimidation by the VA recently uncovered. A manager in the Mental Health Division at Shreveport’s Overton Brooks VA Medical Center, Shea Wilkes, reported he discovered a secret wait list containing 2,202 names of individuals who had requested medical help. 38 of those individuals died while waiting for appointments. Those accusations allegedly resulted in Wilkes being placed under criminal investigation by the VA’s Inspector General. He was alleged to have violated HIPAA Rules by obtaining the patient list, although Wilkes claims that the only reason he was in possession of the list was to use it as evidence to prove his accusations.
Wilkes claims he was investigated for a year, although the VA investigation was dropped when the U.S. Office of Special Counsel (OSC) became involved. According to Wilkes, “I had filed claims in the service and they called me in and said, ‘Your colleagues have a question about your stability and if you are fit to lead. They think you aren’t fit to lead.’” He also said, “They try to use our medical records as a form of intimidation.” He also said, “They investigated me for a list that’s not supposed to exist, yet people go into our files all the time and use it against us? You have to be kidding,”
Following on from their own experiences, Wilkes and Coleman formed a network and reached out to other veterans to find out the extent of the problem. They discovered 20 other individuals who claim they had received similar treatment by the VA.
Following on from these revelations, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, introduced a new bill in which new penalties have been suggested for the illegal accessing and use of medical records of whistleblowers.