A Centerville man whose Department of Veterans Affairs medical records were discovered in the attic of a former VA employee’s home has filed a federal lawsuit against the Dayton VA Medical Center alleging violation of his privacy as a patient, court records show.
Angelo B. Arnold, 52, filed the lawsuit against the Dayton VA and the VA on behalf of himself, his wife, Zandra L. Arnold, and 15 unnamed “John” and “Jane Does” — veterans whose files also were “wrongly handled” and reportedly found in a box in a Centerville home, court documents said.
The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages.
The house once belonged to Roy Beets, a former VA registered nurse who died in 2011, court records said. The medical records and additional confidential information were discovered by a subsequent home owner in May 2012. They were turned over to the Centerville Police Department and returned to the VA, court documents said.
Arnold, a former Marine, received a medical discharge in 1979 when a barrel containing heavy road construction debris was dropped and fell on him at Camp Pendleton, Calif. He said not having the records available for years led to repeated denials of an upgrade in VA service-connected disability compensation claims. The lack of income led him to file for bankruptcy more than a decade ago, he said. He’s called on congressional leaders to launch hearings on why the records went missing and worried about other veterans across the country facing the same dilemma.
“Had they not found those file folders, I probably would have been homeless because I had an eviction notice,” he said.
U.S. District Judge Thomas M. Rose, meanwhile, struck down a request from Arnold to disclose the identities of the other veterans whose records were recovered. The case is in the U.S. District Court Southern District of Ohio-Western Division in Dayton with a May 2015 scheduled trial date.
‘Disappointed’ over no settlement
Thomas J. Manning, Arnold’s attorney, said he had requested the VA offer a $250,000 settlement.
“I can state that I am disappointed that the VA has yet to make a good-faith settlement offer in this matter, especially given the financial turmoil the Arnolds were placed in because of this situation,” the Dayton lawyer said in a statement. “From my research, this is one of many examples of the VA’s total mishandling of veterans’ confidential medical information, and I would enjoy submitting this case to a jury if the VA will not make reasonable efforts to settle this.”
Assistant U.S. Attorney Margaret A. Schutte, representing the Dayton VA, denied in court records Arnold’s allegations of wrongly handled files and asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit for failure to exhaust administrative remedies. Fred Alverson, a U.S. Attorney’s Office spokesman, said his office could not comment on pending litigation.
The discovery of the files was a crucial point in Arnold’s case because his disability claim “was consistently held up and/or denied due to the fact that a great volume of his treatment records, dating from 1980 to 1996, could not be located,” the lawsuit said.
The VA approved the disability claim last November once the “newly returned” medical records were submitted in the determination process, court records said.
Beets owned the Centerville home where the records were discovered, court records said. He was employed at the Dayton VA between 1975 to 1981 and from 1983 to 2000, court documents said.
The lawsuit alleged the VA didn’t maintain security or oversight procedures in place to prevent the removal of the files and that the federal agency was liable for the alleged “wrongful conduct” of the former employee.
‘High privacy and security standards’
In 1998, the VA launched a computerized records system to replace paper records and protect patient data, the Dayton VA said. It also has trained employees and volunteers on information access and security policies and procedures.
“The VA practices high privacy and security standards of our Veterans’ records,” the Dayton VA statement said. “Information protection is a top priority at all levels of our organization and we have effective procedures in place to enforce privacy laws.”
Arnold learned about the discovery of the lost records in a June 22, 2012 letter Dayton VA Medical Center Director Glenn A. Costie sent to Arnold and other affected veterans. In the letter, Costie disclosed where the files were found, how the affected veterans could protect themselves from possible identity theft, and who to contact with a complaint over privacy concerns.
Arnold said he’s grateful U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, helped him claim disability benefits for himself and educational benefits for his children, but was disappointed that neither lawmaker held hearings on why the veterans’ medical records went missing for so long.
“No one was ever held accountable for why those files were missing,” Arnold said. “I think some type of internal investigation should have been done at the Dayton VA.”
Brown said in a statement the loss of records was “unacceptable.”
The senator said he supported the Claims Processing Improvement Act “which holds the VA accountable to Congress and the public by requiring public reporting of projected and actual goals achieved. The legislation also gives the VA tools to hire and train claim processors and develop tactics to attack and eliminate the backlog.”
Preston Grisham, a Turner spokesman, said in an email the congressman’s office could not comment on individual cases because of confidentiality concerns.
He added, however: “Congressman Turner was extremely concerned and immediately reached out to the VA upon learning of veterans’ records turning up at the home of an employee. Turner has on numerous occasions requested answers from the VA on record keeping and the expediency on which they are processing claims for the men and women of our military.”
Turner has co-sponsored a bill to set up a task force to analyze the VA’s disability benefits claims processing system, Grisham said.