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25 Investigates: Veterans' private medical information still being exposed

by: Eric Rasmussen Updated:

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The private medical information of local military veterans keeps getting exposed by a system that’s supposed to protect them, 25 Investigates has uncovered.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Boston told Investigative Reporter Eric Rasmussen a year ago it was working to fix its record mix-ups, but 25 Investigates found a system that vets still say is broken with delayed care and sensitive records falling into the wrong hands.

Terry, a 52-year-old veteran who asked 25 Investigates to only use his first name, said he recently visited a VA hospital in the Boston area to pick up his medical records.

But the 15-year U.S. Air Force vet who loaded bombers during the first Gulf War, told 25 Investigates he was disturbed to later find he had also been given confidential medical records and reports for two other veterans — total strangers.

“I had my records and two other veterans' records in my hand,” said Terry. “I was sick to my stomach, extremely angry.”

He told 25 Investigates he worries it could do lasting damage, making veterans reluctant to seek out the help they need.

“One of the hardest things to do is to come forward and say, ‘I need help,’” said Terry. “If I've got their records, what are the chances of someone else being in my shoes picking up my records?”

Last year, 25 Investigates found at least 37 cases of vets’ mishandled sensitive medical records — often given or mailed to the wrong veterans by the VA in Boston since 2013.

The healthcare system has campuses in Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury and Brockton.

For several weeks, 25 Investigates has been asking to speak with Vincent Ng, the VA’s director in Boston, about the latest breach.

A spokeswoman says they place the highest priority on protecting veterans’ information, but 25 Investigates is still waiting for that interview.

When 25 Investigates first asked to speak with Ng a year ago, the VA set up a sit-down interview with Assistant Director Chuck Ritter, who said the agency is working to do better.

“There's no doubt that at the VA, we owe an apology to veterans,” said Ritter told 25 Investigates last year.

At a recent event honoring a deceased veteran in Hingham, 25 Investigates spoke to U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch about the ongoing mishandling of veterans’ medical records.

”The bottom line is we've got to do better,” said Lynch.

Lynch, who sits on the House Oversight Committee, says he reached out to Terry, but acknowledged more needs to be done.

“You don't want anybody's business to be out there on the street,” said Lynch. “And there's nothing more personal than your medical history and what you have disclosed to your doctors.”

Like so many other veterans, Terry tells 25 Investigates he’s also been affected by long delays.

He says he waited more than a year to see a specialist — only to have that appointment cancelled at the last minute.

Terry finally went to an outside doctor for recent hip surgery.

Terry says the health of veterans and the security of their most confidential information are part of a larger problem the VA has yet to solve.

“The system is broken, but I truly believe that there are folks who do their best,” said Terry. “And then there are some lapses there where people aren't quite doing their best. Things like this with records, with delayed care, denied care happen and the results are that there are veterans who aren't breathing anymore.”

The VA would not directly respond to repeated questions on how records for two other veterans got into Terry’s hands, citing veterans’ privacy.

The VA did say that supervisors now go through monthly reviews and training to make sure they’re handing out the right information to vets.
 

READ LAST YEAR'S STORY: FOX25 Investigates: Veterans' Medical Records Exposed