TAMPA — The tiny camera was housed in a plastic casing that made the device look like a smoke detector. Its manufacturer sold it as a "covert camera."
Leaders of the James A. Haley VA Medical Center said they decided to install it in a brain-damaged veteran's room to monitor his health. They said it wasn't hidden from anybody.
"It's in plain view," Roy Hawkins Jr., Haley's deputy director, told the Tampa Bay Times last year, noting the use of such cameras was routine at hospitals across the nation.
But a report released a week ago by Department of Veterans Affairs investigators exonerating Haley leaders for using the camera also contradicted some of their public explanations about a device installed in the room of Joseph Carnegie, 81.
The report by the VA's Office of Inspector General shows that of the millions of veterans receiving care at agency health centers, only one had a hidden camera installed in their VA hospital room: Carnegie.
Though VA officials insist the camera was not turned on until after Carnegie's family was told about it, the IG report shows Haley's intent was to keep it secret.
The family simply found out by accident.
"They were spying," said Carnegie's daughter, Natalie Carnegie, an Atlanta-area resident. "And they got caught."
Haley officials, who have maintained they did nothing improper, declined to comment for this story.
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Joseph Carnegie, an Air Force veteran from the Atlanta area, was admitted to a South Florida veterans hospital in 2011 because of high blood sugar. Carnegie, who had been vacationing in Florida, soon developed a severe infection at that VA facility before being transferred to Haley.
Then, Carnegie suffered severe brain damage after Haley medical personnel failed to keep a feeding tube clear, the family says. The VA said it is unsure what caused the cardiac arrest that led to severe brain damage.
By June 2012, Carnegie was still hospitalized at Haley. Natalie Carnegie and her husband, Mike Coleman, said they were unhappy with the care Haley provided to her father. They said they talked about filing a malpractice suit.
Medical personnel said they began to notice small problems with Joseph Carnegie's care, the IG report said. Settings on an oxygen or IV line were changed, the report said, or bed settings would be altered.
Medical staff, the report said, suspected the family of creating "small sabotage situations" to falsely document bad care. The nurse manager on Carnegie's floor wrote an email to Haley's chief nurse about some concerns.
"I don't know if it is possible," she wrote on June 5, "but I think the patient should be on 24-hour surveillance monitoring."
Natalie Carnegie denied causing problems. In fact, Haley officials told the Times in interviews the family was not suspected of wrongdoing.
An official (none are named in the report) in patient care/nursing services said in an email, "Is it possible for a hidden camera be placed in room to detect if this is occurring?"
The chief of Haley's biomedical section asked in a June 11 email to several hospital officials, "Are we talking about a hidden camera or one in plain sight?"
The patient care/nursing official responded, "Hidden in the patient room … We don't want the family to know that they are being videotaped. The goal is to detect if they are tampering with the patient's treatment."
Not everyone in Haley leadership wanted to use a hidden camera. The hospital police chief objected because of potential "legal consequences." Other staff appeared concerned that already busy medical staff wouldn't have time to monitor the video.
But Kathleen Fogarty, the hospital director, approved the installation.
Haley bought two "smoke detector" cameras, the IG report said. Only one was installed in Carnegie's room on June 13. The report does not say how the second camera was used.
It didn't take long before Natalie Carnegie and Coleman noticed the "smoke detector" on the ceiling of her father's room. Coleman looked closer. He thought he saw a tiny camera.
A maintenance man confirmed for them that this was, indeed, a camera.
At this point, hospital officials pointed out that the camera hadn't yet been activated. A hospital assistant director (it is unclear if this was Hawkins) said in an email, "The family does know and it is ok — the camera is for monitoring purposes."
But the family was outraged.
On June 15, Haley's privacy officer sent an email to the assistant director and others saying Carnegie's family had filed a privacy complaint.
The officer said, "It is my recommendation that signage be posted in the room, as soon as possible, to state to the effect 'Video Surveillance for Patient Safety.' "
After a story about the camera in the Times, hospital officials told reporters the family knew about the camera. A spokeswoman said Carnegie's family had even signed a release acknowledging the camera.
No such release existed.
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432