On Thursday October 5, 2017, I sent the secretary of the VA, David Shulkin, an email titled “Repeatedly VIOLATED by corrupt VBA managers through privacy breaches – I respectfully request your assistance.”
I then forwarded the same email I had sent to Shulkin, to Thomas Murphy, Acting Under Secretary for Benefits, and Vivieca Wright Simpson, Chief of Staff. The email I sent to top VA leadership read as:
Email sent October 5, 2017:
Subject: RE: Repeatedly VIOLATED by corrupt VBA managers through privacy breaches – I respectfully request your assistance
Dear Dr. David Shulkin,
I come to you out of desperation – I am at my whit’s end. I have exhausted every possible way I know how to resolve this issue. I started over 2 years ago at the lowest chain of command level before contacting you. I have been met with enormous resistance and bureaucratic red tape the whole way. What is and has been happening to me is illegal, unethical, and immoral. Not only is it a breach of privacy, but it is also a breach of trust. When I volunteered to serve in the military and civil service I did not volunteer to be subjugated to the criminal abuse of public office power. Since coming forward in 2008 as a witness for a former co-worker who was being harassed – in order to help her stop the harassment — I have been continuously harassed, punished, and retaliated against by the same people who protected the predator. I was violated (physically assaulted) in the military service. I continue to be violated (mentally assaulted) by corrupt civil service managers in the VBA who have access to all of my military records, medical records, and veteran claim file records. These people have violated my constitutional rights to fair and unbiased due process. These people have violated VA law. These people have violated moral law. Since the VA has done nothing to stop these people from violating other people’s rights, it leads me to believe that the VA as a whole condones this immoral behavior – but I refuse to believe that and that is why I am coming to you. If the VA truly cares about veterans then the VA will do what it takes to protect every veteran’s rights, privacy and property (information). What I say to my doctor is no one else’s business unless they absolutely have to view the information and were authorized to view the information. I am not interested in a lawsuit. I am interested in making the VA better for veterans, including myself. Trying to get an accurate accounting of disclosures of my C-file from the VBA should not take an act of congress and it should not take months rather the disclosures must be made available immediately upon request. When I walk into the privacy officer’s office on VHA side they will print out the list of everyone who has ever viewed my medical records while I am there in the office or they will email or mail it to me within a couple of days. It is my right to see who has accessed my private information and it is my right to restrict who sees my information. I know of no veteran who will want to work for the VA after learning what I have learned, that VA managers have carte blanche to everything with impunity! I love my job. I love helping other veterans. I want to be what is right and moral about the VA and help those who sacrificed so much for our great country. If I get fired for refusing to tolerate the intolerable — by having all of my rights and dignity violated — then I will know for sure the VA is a totally corrupt and bogus entity. Please demonstrate to me through action that the VA cares about veteran’s rights and privacy and that the VA can and will do the right thing, which starts with transparency. Every veteran has the right to know who has been viewing their private information even on the VBA side and why in a timely manner, such as within 1 or 2 days whenever the veteran requests it. And the people who did not have a right (authorization) to view the information, such as managers, co-workers, and people who have a conflict of interest must be held accountable.
This email came after months of waiting for an unredacted accounting of disclosures (audit) of my veteran’s C-file. A report I was told I would receive. However, when the VA slowly released to me in piecemeal fashion an incomplete report void of many names of the people who illegally accessed my protected information, I admit, I completely had a meltdown.
I have no idea why I keep letting myself get surprised at the level of incompetence or corruption at the VA, but whatever the case may be, my faith in the VA as an institution to help veterans keeps getting eroded every day. But I cannot stop trying to improve the system, nor can I stop trying to protect my own privacy, because I have been backed into a corner I never thought I would find myself to be in. I cannot get away from this no matter how much I try, so I am compelled to move forward and confront the people who could care less about me and the mission of the VA. The irony is the more I try to protect my privacy the less of it I have.
I sent that email to VA leadership because I am tired of the lies, I am tired of the false promises, and I am tired of the bullshit. I have no idea why I allow my hopes to build up only to have my hopes crushed by disillusionment; the higher the expectation the more painful the disappointment. I can’t stop thinking about Obama’s book, titled The Audacity of Hope, which I read before I knew he was going to be running for President. The title just seemed to jump out at me from the bookshelf. I can still feel the excitement of hope for our country when he was elected. But Obama failed me too, both as a veteran and a federal employee. His presidency, just like the presidents before him, did nothing to improve the culture of corruption at the VA, rather it flourished.
Now, my only hope comes from our current President, who everyone seems to dislike and any mention of him rains down a flurry of criticism and insults. Dare I hope in someone who everyone seems to want to fail?
Who else do I have in my corner? Certainly not any of my, so called, representatives in Congress. I know I am not alone in hearing mostly silence from members of Congress, including the likes of Senator John McCain and Representative Bill Shuster.
What is wrong with Vietnam veterans who hold office? My own local Congressman Mike Thompson is a combat Vietnam veteran and he has chosen to ignore my pleas for help.
What happened to the principle of “never again will one generation of veterans abandon another”?
What happened to the principle “no veteran left behind?” Instead all I hear is cowardliness and selfishness.
Vietnam veterans were treated differently than those who returned from WWII and Korea. They were discouraged from joining Veteran Service Organizations and treated like pariahs. The broad brush painted Vietnam veterans as druggies, baby killers, and losers.
Yet of late, when veterans who work for the VA take the necessary steps to improve the VA, they are often labeled by some members of Veterans Service Organizations as “troublemakers” and “squealers”. I understand VSOs do not want to bite the hand that feeds them, but are VSOs really doing a service to veterans when so many veterans are dying before they are helped?
Veterans who turn their backs on other veterans who make public disclosures of corruption or wrong doing within the VA are the most cowardly bottom feeders because they do what is easy rather than what is right.
So far no one has come forward with any courage to speak of. I have lost track of the number of people, including veterans, who reported to me that they were either afraid of losing their job and/or their veterans benefits. They are afraid if they make a stand to help me they will be targeted and black balled like me.
Has the culture at the VA really come to this? When veterans are too afraid to criticize the VA for fear they will be retaliated against? Is this why some veterans rate the VA so high?
Is it really too much to ask of the VA to abide by the law that was designed to protect my information from people I do not want accessing my private information?
Is it really too much to ask of the VA to hold people accountable for breaking the law?
Somedays I feel like I have been sucked into an alternate reality where the cognitive dissonance is so severe that absolutely no one is even cognizant of it. A place where when crimes are permitted by certain people the rest of us are forced to “move along, nothing to see here”. I suppose if everyone ignores me then the crimes committed against me never happened; right?
Is that the way it works?
Can my case be used in philosophy class? You know, sort of like “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
My version would be “if a veteran’s privacy is violated did it really happen if no one notices?” Or how about, “if the VA refuses to accept reports of privacy violations, does it really make the VA look better?”
I suppose if no one cares about someone else’s privacy being violated, then what will most likely happen is that the conversation will die, because there won’t be anyone to carry it onward to keep it alive. It will be forgotten. And forgotten crimes that are not seen or heard are never stopped or resolved. The few sorry souls who were stupid enough to point out that the emperor had no clothes will eventually pitter out of complaints and surrender to every bit of karma coming to them.
Is the perseverance and tenaciousness of hope enough to turn the tide at the VA? I don’t know.
No Response From Shulkin
To date, I have never received a response from Shulkin, but Ms. Wright Simpson did respond to her email, stating “Adding leaders at VBA to this email for f/u.”
Wright-Simpson added Murphy, Marcia Insley, Director of Health Data & Information, and Mike Frueh, VBA Chief of Staff.
In response to Ms. Wright Simpson’s email, Frueh stated, “Thanks, Vivieca — we are investigating and calling.”
On behalf of Murphy, Allison Strickland also sent me a response stating, “Thank you for the email. I will have the team review your email and provide you a response ASAP.”
However, no one has ever called me or reached out to me to find out the details of my request for help nor has anyone reported back to me. I had informed them three months prior that the Oakland VA regional office had illegally accessed my veteran’s C-file. I also had been working with the VA FOIA office in order to obtain an unredacted accounting of disclosures of my veteran’s C-file, which as of January 2018 I still do not have possession of.
Everyone has been informed that my former managers and co-workers at the Oakland VA regional office did not have my permission to access my veteran’s C-file. VA leadership is also aware that it is a conflict of interest and unethical for my former managers and co-workers to be accessing and working on my C-file in any capacity. VA leadership is also aware that my former managers and co-workers abused their positions when they tried to use the VA system against me in retaliation for coming forward as a witness for a former co-worker. VA leadership is also aware that the Restricted Access Claim Center (known as the RACC) at the St. Paul VA regional office does not restrict managers from accessing VA veteran employee C-files. VA leadership knows that the infamous Kim Graves, director of St. Paul is redacting the accounting of disclosures and preventing me from obtaining official VA documents showing the malfeasance.
Yet, nothing has been done to correct this problem. Nothing has been done to hold people accountable. Nothing has been done to protect my privacy. Nothing has been done to correct the bogus claims made in my name. Nothing has been done to stop my former managers and co-workers from accessing my veteran’s C-file. Nothing has been done to safeguard my information so that my conversations between my doctor and I are kept confidential and only read by someone who has a need to know.
You may think I am being overly dramatic, maybe even a bit hyperbolic, like… what is the big deal? Who cares who has access to all of your military records, medical records, school records, work records, financial records, and a shitload of other protected information?
If you think that way then you lack empathy and probably have either sociopath or narcissist personality trait leanings. And shall I go so far as to say that not caring about privacy is clearly “un-American.”
Privacy Violations are Prevalent at the VA
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) strictly forbids the disclosure of a patient’s medical records without written permission. Michael Volpe, contributing writer to The Daily Caller, reported: “Though this is forbidden, this practice is so prevalent that in April 2015, then Office of Special Counsel director Carolyn Lerner testified in Congress about this epidemic.” Lerner testified that, “In several cases, the medical records of whistleblowers have been accessed and information in those records has apparently been used to attempt to discredit the whistleblowers.”
No system can function efficiently and fairly if the law only applies to some people. It completely disgusts me when I hear VA leadership claiming there has been improvements within the VA while completely ignoring the fact that there continues to be very egregious crimes and unethical behavior being committed within the VA and leadership is aware of it, but has done nothing about it.
I have absolutely no control over my private and protected information. Anyone who has access to VBMS (Veterans Benefits Management System) with a few strokes of the keyboard can view over 30 years of information about me. No person, not even a government employee should have that much access to so much information about a person’s past and present life history, especially VA employees who are known to be unscrupulous. No manager or former manager or co-worker should have access to so much information about their employees or co-workers, especially the people who were responsible for forcing my resignation because they were protecting the man who I witnessed harassing a co-worker I didn’t even know.
Veterans have no idea who is accessing their information. Veterans have no way to control who accesses their information. Veterans have no way of stopping someone from accessing their information. Veterans have no recourse even when government officials break the law.
VA Employees Make False Medical Notes and Diagnoses
As an additional level of absurdity I also have to review my medical records in case a VA employee decides to make false medical records and/or enter false diagnoses in my medical charts in an effort to discredit me and make me look like a wackadoodle. This practice has already happened to other veteran employees. For example, James DeNofrio, an employee and whistleblower at the Altoona VA Medical Center, a Pennsylvania hospital in the VISN 4 region, stated to a CDN reporter Michael Volpe:
“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.”
In this same article, Michael Volpe wrote, “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.” Phoenix VA whistleblower Brandon Coleman and Memphis VA whistleblower Sean Higgins also reported their medical records were illegally accessed. Coleman reported, shortly after he blew the whistle on a secret wait list at the Phoenix hospital, a manager told him he was “unstable and unfit to lead.”
Karen Santoro, a veteran who used to work for the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System, reported to Carl Prine, a writer for TribLive (The Tribune Review) that in 2010 she heard co-workers chattering about her psychological care. She said she faced reprisals from superiors for complaining about other employees violating her privacy by inappropriately accessing her medical records and gossiping about it. Santoro begged her bosses to transfer her or let her work from home until investigators finished their work. They refused. She resigned in mid-2011, disgusted with VA’s disregard of privacy laws. She is convinced that officials were retaliating against her and concerned by “inaction” by Health and Human Services, which enforces HIPAA at all health care facilities.
“It’s unconscionable that the very people who defend the rights of the American people don’t have those rights at VA,” said Santoro to writer Carl Prine at TribLive “…We must fight back and change the system because we deserve a better one.”
A two-month Tribune-Review investigation found over 14,000 privacy violations at 167 facilities, victimizing at least 101,000 veterans and 551 VA employees. Photos of the anatomy of some were posted on social media; stolen IDs of others were used to make fraudulent credit cards. The Trib’s analysis of reports filed with the VA’s Risk Management and Incident Response Resolution Team found a pattern of illegal snooping through patient files, or lost sensitive data such as Social Security numbers. Criminal investigators found VA employees stealing veterans’ identities or prescriptions.
RELATED: A Warning To VA Veteran Employees
Former Florida Congressman Jeff Miller, who used to chair the House Committee of Veterans Affairs, told the Trib, “There’s quite a difference between unknowingly exposing veterans’ personally identifiable information through network security vulnerabilities and purposefully violating the privacy of veterans.”
As chairman, Miller was especially critical of the Veterans Administration under President Obama and had been considered for VA secretary under President Trump. But that job instead went to David Shulkin, VA’s Under Secretary for Health. Miller’s fierce style was almost heroic because he revealed the tragic absurdity of VA leadership’s behavior. I wonder if veterans will ever get another strong advocate like Miller?
The VA Wizard of Oz Projects 2 + 2 = 5
From my perspective no one, not even President Trump, can claim the VA has made any improvement at the VA until the most egregious cases are resolved, which means making people accountable for their actions and making sure another incident like it will not happen again. That is how the system improves and the culture changes.
Every time I hear Shulkin and others spouting off about the amazing progress at the VA, what keeps repeatedly flashing before my eyes is 2 + 2 = 5. I suppose if enough people hear it enough times eventually 2 + 2 will equal 5. 2+2 does not equal 5. 2+2 will never equal 5.
Shulkin is like the Wizard of Oz telling the public to “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
Just like Dorothy discovered, the Wizard of Oz isn’t all he’s cracked up to be and the spell of the Wizard was broken. The only power the Wizard actually had was the ability to project voices everywhere, seen in the powerful mainstream media and PR used as tools for propaganda. Words mean nothing without action.
The best advice I can suggest to VA leadership who are allegedly working to improve the VA, do what many successful corporations do: Apologize. Not one person in the VA has reached out to me to say, “I am sorry this has happened to you and we will do everything it takes to make sure it won’t happen again.”
How hard is that? Apparently it is too hard for the people I reported the crimes to, even my Congressman Mike Thompson and Senator Kamela Harris.
As far as I am concerned, every single one of VA’s “I Care” slogans are just mere window dressings and nothing of real substance. It is actually quite offensive when I hear someone say they care about veterans but their actions do not match what they say. It appears more like what they really care more about is their job, how people perceive them, and any recognition it may give them for allegedly serving veterans.
No matter what, this simple fact remains:
A promise broken to one veteran is a promise broken to all veterans.
Until VA can make due on its promises veterans need advocates to keep the conversation alive and carry it forward so more people can hear it. For me, I need at least 100,000 signatures before Congress will even listen to what I have to say. Please help make my voice heard. By signing this petition and sharing with your friends, you help me get the attention of our legislatures, who can help me and other veterans like me by:
- Making the VBA provide me with an unredacted list of every person who has accessed or queried any part of my C-file.
- Make VBA managers and employees accountable for violating my privacy and for abusing their positions of power to retaliate against me.
- Pass laws that will protect my C-file and other veterans’ C-files from specific employees and managers.
- Make each veteran a watchdog over their own C-file by releasing the unredacted accounting of disclosures immediately upon request and whenever requested. And make the reporting of privacy violations easy and efficient. Every Veteran has a right to know who has been viewing their private information and there must be an enforceable law to deter people from accessing a veteran’s C-file without first having authorization or permission by the veteran.