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FOX25 Investigates: Veterans' Records, Medicine, Mishandled

by: Eric Rasmussen Updated:

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BOSTON - Veterans’ protected health information, lab results, doctors notes, and – in some cases, medicine – were mishandled 37 times by workers in the VA Boston Healthcare System in the last three years, according to federal records obtained by FOX25 Investigates.

The review comes after a disabled Navy veteran first told his story to FOX25 in March.

Medical Records Mix-Up

The disabled vet had requested three years of his medical records from Veterans Affairs in Boston, but immediately noticed a problem with the documents after they arrived in the mail.

“I look down at the bottom and I see another individual’s name on there,” said the vet who asked not to be identified.

Upon closer inspection, the entire medical file, nearly 600 pages, belonged to another veteran. The documents included his Social Security number, date of birth, medications and doctor’s notes. The Navy vet soon learned his records had also been mistaken mailed to other veteran, who called him to report the error.

“I just feel very violated. It hurts,” said the veteran whose medical records likely include notes related to his ongoing struggles and treatment for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

The two veterans eventually received their records. VA officials blamed “human error” and said the mix-up occurred because the two men have the same first name, but FOX25 Investigates found the incident was only the latest in a string of similar mistakes in recent years.

Not Isolated

Records obtained by FOX25 Investigates through the Freedom of Information Act reveal at least 37 cases of mishandled sensitive material by the VA in Boston since 2013.

The healthcare system has campuses in Jamaica Plain, West Roxbury, and Brockton as well as five other outpatient clinics.

The records reviewed by FOX25 detail a number of troubling cases, but do not identify the veterans involved:

•         Veteran A telephoned to report they received Veteran B's medication in the mail.

•         Veteran A hand carried a list of 17 Veteran's full first and last names and last four of SSN and medical information to the Privacy Officer (PO) at another VA Medical Center.  Veteran A reported being handed the information at the clinic.

•         Veteran A reported receiving Veteran B's protected health information (PHI) in an envelope along with Veteran A's PHI at Veteran A's home address.  Veteran A dropped off the PHI of Veteran B to an employee.   Veteran B's name, address, partial SSN and PHI were compromised.

VA Apologizes: “Honest Mistakes”

VA Boston Assistant Director Chuck Ritter agreed to speak with FOX25 Investigates about the errors.

“There’s no doubt that at the VA, we owe an apology to the veterans,” said Ritter. “If we compromised their information in any way, shape or form, that's something that we can do better.”

However, Ritter the mistakes and improperly mailed records make up only a small percentage of the 120,000 pieces of mail sent out by the VA Boston Healthcare System every day.

“They’re honest mistakes,” said Ritter. “Being an honest mistake does not make it right. It does not mean we are not striving to improve, but they’re honest mistakes.”

Ritter says the VA in Boston employs three full-time privacy officers to investigate each case when a veteran’s private information is compromised. Administrators have also added new safeguards, such as requiring a “second set of eyes” to review each package before it’s put in the mail.

Out of the 37 cases reviewed by FOX25, the VA said one worker was terminated and another was suspended. The VA responded to the other incidents by “re-training” the employees involved.

“If we create a culture where (employees) are not comfortable bringing up these issues to us, what they would do is they would sweep these issues under the rug,” said Ritter.

Lawmakers, Veterans not Satisfied

FOX25 Investigates shared the results of its investigation with Massachusetts lawmakers.

State Rep. John Velis, (D) Westfield, is among those calling on the VA to do more to prevent errors that expose veterans’ personal information.

“One incident is too many times. I mean, these are people who have potentially laid down their lives on behalf of this country. They should not be mishandling people's correspondence like this,” said Velis.

State Rep. Velis has his own experience with the VA, as a captain in the US Army Reserves, and says he believes the system has made improvements on other fronts, including long wait times.

He said he had not heard of the problems involving mishandled records until he was contacted by FOX25.

“If it's a resources issue, give them more resources. If it's a staffing issue, hire more people. I don't understand how someone can send to ‘person A’ ‘person B's’ medical records. It does not make sense,” said Velis.

U.S. Rep. Seth Moulton, also a veteran, echoed those concerns.

“Our veterans deserve the best health care in the world and clearly they're not getting it if they can't even trust that their records will be properly handled,” said the Congressman.