VA officials illegally accessed whistleblower’s medical records

Individuals running a Veterans Administration Administrative Investigative Board (AIB) illegally accessed James DeNofrio's medical records and even shared them with several individuals.

The James E. Van Zandt VA Hospital in Altoona, Pa. (Public domain photo from the hospital's Facebook page)

WASHINGTON, May 1, 2017 – James DeNofrio is an employee and whistleblower at the Altoona VA (Veterans Administration) Medical Center. After he reported on patient safety issues at the hospital, management referred him to what is called an administrative investigative board (AIB), arguing that the allegations were baseless and thus only made to bully upper management.

Since that incident, both the VA Office of Inspector General and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) also investigated the same claims. Yet VA AIB investigation continued for nearly a year before finding no wrongdoing on DeNofrio’s part after media and Congressional pressure.

Now CDN has exclusively learned that those running the AIB illegally accessed DeNofrio’s medical records and even shared them with several individuals.

In a letter to DeNofrio, VISN 4 director, Dr. Michael Adelman, notes:

“I am writing to you as the Network Director of VA Healthcare VISN 4. On February 13, 2017, you filed a complaint with the Privacy Office noting that the Administrative Investigative Board (AIB) file that you received copies of contained multiple copies of your Protected Health Information (PHI). Also, it was identified that the AIB file was maintained on a Share Point site that multiple individuals had access to. Upon investigation of your report it was determined that there was a disc that was disclosed to two people.”

Veteran Integrated Services Network, or VISN 4, is the regional office for the region which includes the Altoona VA Medical Center.

The Health Insurance Portability Accountability Act (HIPAA) prohibits the disclosure of any medical records to anyone but the patient’s medical professional. DeNofrio is retired from the Army, where he was a military intelligence officer. He receives medical care in the VA system.

According to Andrea Young, the public affairs officer, “There is an ongoing investigation by VISN 4, ”confirming to CDN that ViSN 4 is now investigating the matter. Young declined further comment because of the investigation.

DeNofrio confirmed that the VA Office of Inspector General’s Office and the Department of Health and Human Services are also investigating the illegal access of his medical records.

The AIB investigation of DeNofrio and his entire department, which also included fellow whistleblower Tim Skarada, was controversial from the beginning.

Though the then medical director, William Mills, was quietly moved shortly after the Office of Special Counsel released its findings, the hospital continued its investigation even after repeated queries from the office of Pennsylvania Senator Robert Casey.

Though AIBs are generally supposed to take one-hundred-twenty days to conduct an investigation, this AIB lasted nearly a year before concluding that nothing wrong was done.

The peculiar behavior continued even after the AIB investigation ended. Initially, only a two page form letter simply stating that the AIB found no wrongdoing on his part was shared with DeNofrio. It took several attempts using the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) for DeNofrio to finally get his complete file, and it was through this file that he learned his medical records were illegally accessed.

In an apparent pattern, the VA has been caught repeatedly illegally accessing medical records in other cases. For example, in September 2015, several VA whistleblowers testified before Congress, stating that their medical records had been illegally accessed.

In addition, in October 2015, HHS also announced it was investigating the illegal access of medical records of Phoenix VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman. Sean Higgins, the Memphis VA Medical Center whistleblower who has contributed to several CDN stories on this issue, also said his medical records have also repeatedly been illegally accessed.

In an email to this CDN reporter, DeNofrio said he believes the AIB was nothing more than cynical attempt to obtain his medical records:

“VA officials altered my Veteran medical records to make it look like I had a mental illness after my protected whistleblower disclosures about serious threats to patient care and safety. They then launched a retaliatory ten-month disciplinary investigation to share the false information across VA for no other reason than to discredit me and cover-up the truth that I was reporting. Sadly, not one person involved has been held accountable, and the VA Senior Executive who orchestrated the whole thing was shuffled around the VA for a year, promoted, and then allowed to retire.”

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