TAMPA — Officials at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center admitted Wednesday to videotaping a brain-damaged veteran using a covert smoke-detector camera after initially denying they did so.
Leaders at the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital offered no explanation why they had previously denied taping the veteran, Joseph Carnegie, in interviews with the Tampa Bay Times this month.
The revelation comes after a July 10 Times story detailing Haley's installation of a "C401W Smoke Detector Covert Camera" made by Vonnic Inc. in Carnegie's hospital room after his family threatened malpractice litigation.
Haley officials have admitted placing the camera without the consent of Carnegie's family, saying it was used for "patient safety." But they emphatically denied recording the video feed.
In a statement late Wednesday by Haley spokeswoman Carolyn Clark in response to questions by the Times, Haley said, "We can and do record video without audio to enhance our ability to provide patient care as appropriate."
In a July 9 interview with Haley's chief of staff, Edward Cutolo, deputy director Roy Hawkins Jr. and Clark, the Times asked if the video feed was being recorded.
"No," said Hawkins, noting the feed was only being monitored by staff. "They're there to visually watch this, not to record."
The Times recorded the interview with the VA's consent.
Carnegie's daughter, Natalie, said her family objects to the taping. She said nurses have admitted to them that taping was taking place even as Haley's administration denied it.
The videotaping, like the installation of the camera without the family's knowledge, makes the invasion of privacy all the more egregious, Natalie Carnegie said.
"My father is ill. He can't speak for himself. This is one of the worst moments in his life. He's in this hospital because he earned the right to be here through his service to the nation. No veteran deserves this kind of disrespect," she said.
Haley said the video feed from the smoke alarm camera does not have audio. But Natalie Carnegie said nurses have told the family that the audio was being monitored and recorded as well. "The room is bugged," she said.
Why Haley officials would go to so much trouble is unclear. Hawkins said the camera isn't being used in any investigation of hospital staff. And he said Carnegie's family is not being accused of any wrongdoing that might need to be documented.
Hawkins has said the camera is simply used to monitor patient safety in much the same way as a heart monitor or other device.
The Carnegie family has accused nurses and other hospital staff of not adequately monitoring the veteran or wearing protective clothing to prevent infection.
Carnegie, who lives in the Atlanta area, had taken ill while vacationing in South Florida. He was transferred to Haley in August to be closer to home and receive more aggressive care at Haley, which is considered one of the VA's leading hospitals.
Natalie Carnegie said staff negligence caused her father's brain damage in August when nurses failed to notice the buildup of mucus and other material in a feeding tube. Carnegie said her father had been left lying flat on his back, which allowed the fluid buildup, causing cardiac arrest.
Cutolo, Haley's chief of staff, said previously that the reason for the cardiac arrest may never be known.
"It did occur at our facility, on our watch, and we take responsibility … and apologized to the family," he said.
But hospital leaders said the camera is not related to any staffing issue at Haley.
Haley officials insist the Carnegie family was told by staff that the camera was being installed in June. But Hawkins, the deputy director, initially told the Times this month the camera was placed in the room without notice to the Carnegies.
The family said they noticed the odd-looking smoke detector on June 15, shortly after it was placed on the ceiling, and saw a camera lens after a closer look.
Hawkins said using room cameras over the objection of a veteran or family is consistent with VA national policy.
A VA spokesman in Washington, D.C., failed to respond to repeated questions asking if that was true.
"VA places the highest priority on delivering high-quality care while respecting the privacy of veterans," VA spokesman Phil Budahn said. "In some cases, it may be medically necessary to closely monitor patients to ensure they are receiving the care they need."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.