Navy vet worries Bay Pines 'typo' confuses him with another veteran

ST. PETERSBURG — Navy veteran Thomas Calahan never claimed he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.

And a doctor has never diagnosed him with PTSD, either.

After all, Calahan did not experienced the crucible of combat.

So it was with some surprise that Calahan, 60, recently opened a letter from the Department of Veterans Affairs and read that the VA wanted to discuss a medical claim he had filed.

It wanted to discuss his PTSD.

Then Calahan noticed the name atop the letter. It wasn't his.

In what Calahan said may be an odd breach of patient privacy, the St. Petersburg man thinks the VA mistakenly sent him information on another veteran's PTSD.

And he wonders if that man, in turn, got medical information about Calahan.

VA officials say that did not happen and patient privacy was not violated.

The letter was intended for Calahan, even if he does not have PTSD, the VA says.

"That doesn't make sense to me," Calahan said. "Why can't they keep this stuff straight?"

Critics have hammered the VA over breaches of patient privacy through the years, from boxes of records found on street curbs to stolen computers with data on millions of veterans.

Veterans file a million medical claims a year nationally.

"In the rush to process a huge backlog of claims, VA does make mistakes in claim decisions and other areas of veterans' claims," said Paul Sullivan, executive director of Veterans for Common Sense, an advocacy group.

His group has urged the VA to hire more employees to handle the high volume of claims.

The Bay Pines claims office in St. Petersburg, which sent the letter to Calahan, is one of the busiest in the nation.

It handles claims for benefits from veterans throughout Florida — roughly 60,000 a year.

One of those belongs to Calahan, who is a retired officer of the merchant marine.

Calahan served about two years in the Navy ending in 1976 and was honorably discharged.

He said he has hypertension, heart disease and an anxiety disorder linked to the stress he suffered during his service.

In 2003, Calahan filed a claim for just hypertension and heart disease. The VA denied it.

Then last year, Calahan filed an appeal with additional evidence that included information on his anxiety disorder, which was not part of the first claim.

If he wins, the VA might provide Calahan with a monthly check for the disability and pay for his health care.

Then the Sept. 1 letter arrived. Calahan was immediately confused by it.

The address block atop the letter lists a veteran named Brown. But the letter's salutation is "Dear Mr. Calahan."

The address is Calahan's, as is the Social Security number in the letter. A phone number for Calahan also is correct.

The letter says, "This letter is to address your PTSD due to personal trauma."

Calahan said that clearly cannot refer to him. But "it got me sweating," he said.

What if the VA had rejected his claim based on Brown's information? Or what if Brown's claim is approved based on Calahan's medical information?

Calahan wrote back to the VA pointing out the error.

He didn't get an answer, so Calahan wrote a second letter in December.

"I believe you would soon ease my anxiety with a response of some kind, hopefully a reassurance my file has not been mixed up with Mr. Brown's," he wrote.

"Please have some compassion and respond to me soonest."

The VA still did not respond.

Calahan finally got a call back after a reporter asked the VA about the letter.

VA spokeswoman Collette Burgess said the agency regrets the confusion, but denied that a privacy breach had occurred.

Putting Brown's name at the top was a "typo," Burgess said.

She said the PTSD language was used because part of Calahan's claim involves a mental health issue similar to PTSD, namely his anxiety disorder.

Burgess acknowledged the letter should have been more specific in describing the condition.

"There has been no breach of his privacy or anyone else's privacy," Burgess said. "We take that very seriously. Any error, any cause of concern or confusion is something we seek to avoid. This was merely human error."

Calahan isn't convinced and said his worry over the letter is aggravating his anxiety disorder.

"They should call it post-traumatic claims disorder," he said.

He awaits a final decision on his VA claim, hoping it will be based on accurate information.

Burgess said the VA has "no indication" that the Brown in the letter really exists. But Calahan is convinced Brown is a real person, not just some typo.

And he can't help but wonder if Brown, wherever he lives, is as confused as Calahan.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3432.

Navy vet worries Bay Pines 'typo' confuses him with another veteran 02/06/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 6, 2011 7:53pm]

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