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Air Force veteran can't get answers about medical records

Outpatient medical records being filed at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., in March 2009. The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense are supposed to share a common records system by 2017.

When Air Force veteran Janet Jennings received notice in the mail last week that someone at the Dayton VA medical center had inappropriately shared her medical information, the news came with an apology.

But what Jennings can’t get is an explanation.

She called the local Department of Veterans Affairs phone number listed on the letter, but instead of telling her what happened, an “employee did not treat Ms. Jennings with the respect she deserves,” the VA admitted in a statement after Jennings called the I-Team.

“I don’t understand why they would not tell me who my information has been released to,” Jennings said in an interview in her Fairborn home.

“Was it released to a finance company, a medical company, somebody walking down the hall?”

This adds to a string of embarrassing cases of patients’ private medical information ending up in the wrong hands. Other issues in recent years included a stash of medical records found in a Centerville attic, and veterans receiving the wrong records in the mail.

VA officials tell the I-Team that the latest incident was isolated to Jennings and one other patient.

“In Ms. Jennings’ case, one page of her medical record was unredacted, leaving her name, date of birth, telephone number, and diagnosis visible. Her Social Security number was not included,” VA spokesman Ted Froats wrote in a statement.

The employee responsible is facing “significant administrative action,” Froats said.

The employee who was rude to Jennings has since retired from the VA, he said.

Protecting patient info has been a problem for the VA. It was sued last year by local veteran Angelo Arnold, whose files, as well as the files of 15 other patients, were found in the attic of a Centerville home in 2012.

The home had belonged to Roy Beets, a former VA registered nurse who died in 2011, court records said. The medical records were decades old.

Arnold said his records missing for years led the VA to deny some of his claims for benefits, which were approved after the documents were found.

That case was dismissed by Arnold’s attorney in November after attorneys for the government argued that Arnold had not followed proper procedure to bring legal action against the VA.

In 2012, the Dayton Daily News reported that the VA on several occasions had provided the wrong medical records to patients when they requesed a copy of their records.

Froats said new policies were put in place after the attic incident, including prohibiting employees from using personal devices that might allow an employee to leave the facility with unauthorized records. He said they take the Jennings issue seriously.

“At the Dayton VA Medical Center, we do not tolerate failures to treat our Veterans and their privacy with respect. We offer our sincerest apologies to both Ms. Jennings and the other affected veteran.”

Jennings received a medical discharge from the Air Force in 1997 after 12 years of service. She has been a regular client of the VA for years and said the way her case was handled makes her wonder if the document release was retaliation for her complaining about problems she had with care.

Jennings kept detailed notes of her calls to the VA after getting the letter. They show she initially just wanted to know what happened, but became increasingly frustrated when people wouldn’t answer the question. At one point, an employee on conference call could be heard saying, “I don’t want to deal with this,” she wrote in her notes.

“To me they’ve opened up a bag of worms, and when I ask the questions, they want to close it again,” she said.

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