WASHINGTON, July 20, 2016 – The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights has launched an investigation into illegal access of medical records at the Altoona VA Medical Center.
The hospital acknowledged the situation in a letter to Pennsylvania Democratic Senator Robert Casey last month.
“On April 26, 2016, that agency (HHS Office of Civil Rights) notified VHA’s Privacy Office that Mr. DeNofrio submitted a privacy complaint and that it was being added to an ongoing compliance review by that agency.”
In October 2015, word first leaked that the HHS Office of Civil Rights was looking into complaints from a number of VA whistleblowers who were also veterans, all complaining that their medical records were illegally accessed as part of a campaign of whistleblower retaliation.
Several VA whistleblowers testified in Congress about the VA’s illegally accessing their medical records in September 2015.
Christopher “Shea” Wilkes, a veteran and VA employee who blew the whistle on a secret waiting list at the Shreveport VA Medical Center in Louisiana, told Congress at that hearing that his mental stability was questioned by the VA after he made the allegations.
He was labeled “unstable and unfit to lead,” according a manager.
Wilkes told Congress that shortly after this conversation he found his medical records illegally accessed multiple times.
Sean Higgins, an Air Force veteran and Memphis VA Medical Center employee who has blown the whistle on numerous occasions, told CDN that his medical records have been illegally accessed twenty-three times.
Andrea Young, Public Affairs Officer at the Altoona VA Medical Center, released a statement to CDN.
“It is also our understanding the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights is doing a compliance review of all medical centers regarding impermissible access privacy violations only and not an investigation of a complaint filed by DeNofrio.”
The Health Insurance and Portability Acccounting Act (HIPAA) strictly forbids anyone but a medical professional who is treating them to look at anyone’s medical records.
In response, DeNofrio proclaimed that his medical records were accessed as part of a campaign to intimidate and retaliate.
“I have read the statement provided by the VA. The fact is that I am a disabled Veteran. I had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) during training as a soldier that resulted in a life time of epileptic seizures. I am proud to have served my country, and I am proud to be able to continue to serve my county and America’s Veterans as an employee of the VA despite my injury….It is my opinion the VA has done nothing to protect me as a whistleblower. Immediately following my December 2015 complaint to the VHA Privacy Office, the Altoona VAMC Director convened an Administrative Investigative Board against me and another Altoona whistleblower, which is often the first step to taking disciplinary action against or to terminate a federal employee even though I have been rated outstanding in my performance for the past eight years, received many awards, and have no prior disciplinary, conduct, or performance actions in my career at the VA.”
Dr. Tim Skarada is a fellow employee of the Altoona VA Medical Center; both he and DeNofrio had letters released by the Office of Special Counsel days before former hospital director William Mills was moved to the Memphis VA Medical Center; he backed up DeNofrio’s assertion.
“I will confirm that I remain under the same AIB, based on false claims by people we have reported on. I have been unable to get clarification from the agency on its status. i can confirm that i have (seen) that indeed inappropriate accesses to Mr. Denofrio’s record have occurred.”