Thursday, April 26, 2018
Military News

Smoke-detector camera videos still not released to veteran's family

TAMPA — Officials at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center put a tiny camera hidden in a smoke detector in the room of a brain-damaged veteran without telling his family.

This, Haley says, did not violate the patient's privacy.

But six months after the family of veteran Joseph Carnegie first asked for a copy of the video recorded off that camera, Haley officials still have not turned anything over to them.

Haley officials say they have been examining hundreds of hours of video to ensure the VA does not release the image of anyone in the room, excluding hospital staff and Carnegie's daughter, who has not given the VA permission to do so.

To do otherwise, Haley officials have said, would be a privacy violation.

"A number of individuals must be redacted from the recording prior to release," Susan Wentzell, a Haley spokesman, said in a recent email. "There are approximately 1,000 hours that must be reviewed frame by frame."

VA spokeswoman Mary Kay Hollingsworth said in an email, "We hope to have information to the family within the next few weeks."

In an Aug. 7 email to the Tampa Bay Times, Hollingsworth offered similar words: "The DVD will be provided as soon as practicable," she said then.

The VA has not contested the right of Carnegie's daughter to obtain the recordings.

But the daughter, Natalie Carnegie, said she has grown increasingly frustrated at Haley's refusal to provide the recording. She said she can't help but think Haley is trying to hide something.

"We don't know what they're waiting for," said Natalie Carnegie. "They're stalling."

The camera was installed in June, the family said, after they threatened litigation against the VA because of poor care they believe Carnegie had received.

Hospital officials, who say Haley offers excellent care, say they used the camera to remotely monitor Carnegie's fragile health. They compare the camera with other technology commonly used by hospitals, such as heart monitors.

The agency has insisted it was not spying on the family. But Haley removed the camera earlier this year.

"What the VA tries to do is wear people out and wait you out to see if you fold and go away," said Mike Coleman, Natalie Carnegie's husband. "But it's not going to work with us."

Joseph Carnegie, an Air Force veteran from Atlanta, was admitted to a South Florida veterans hospital a year ago 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 the brain damage.

The brain damage left the veteran unable to communicate.

Carnegie was discharged from Haley on Sept. 10, then transferred to a VA hospital in Atlanta. He is now cared for by his family at home in the Atlanta area.

Haley leaders said the family was told about the camera before its installation and indicated the Carnegies had signed a waiver acknowledging its installation.

Both points proved to be false. No such waiver existed, and Haley documents examined by the Times show the family did not know about the camera's installation.

The hospital also initially denied recording the video feed from the camera. This, too, was proven untrue.

The camera has sparked two investigations of Haley — one by the U.S. House Veterans Affairs Committee, the second by the VA's inspector general.

The VA said the IG's investigation is still ongoing. Committee staff also said the committee's investigation is ongoing. Rep. Jeff Miller, the Pensacola Republican who chairs the panel, has declined numerous requests for an interview.

Natalie Carnegie said she doesn't understand how a camera that the VA insists did not violate her father or her family's privacy needs to be reviewed to protect the privacy of strangers.

"It's insane," she said.

William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected]

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