Betraying in yet another way its sacred duty toward all who've worn America's uniform, the Department of Veterans Affairs makes a mockery of its obligation to protect veterans' privacy.
A two-month Trib investigation found 14,215 privacy violations at 167 VA facilities that victimized at least 101,018 veterans from 2010 through May 31. Besides violations of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which prohibits releasing medical information, there were social-media postings of photos of veterans' anatomy and incidents of credit-card fraud, snooping into patients' files, identity theft, prescription theft, lost Social Security numbers and failure to comply with mandatory data encryption.
Firings of VA employees for such outrageous conduct are outrageously rare. Just one of every 365 privacy-violation cases was turned over to the VA's Office of Inspector General, VA police or outside law enforcement. And policy prevents the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights — which one HIPAA expert calls Uncle Sam's “big hammer” in privacy cases — from penalizing the VA, even for repeat offenses.
With VA privacy violations continuing to rise, the agency's empty rhetoric and ineffective retraining clearly are not solutions. Congress must enable the HHS civil rights office to enforce real VA accountability for patients' privacy — and maintain close scrutiny of the VA, whose execrable performance seems ever more the opposite of its mission.
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