Editorial: VA report dodges invasion of privacy

Published April 15, 2013

Most health care providers respect their obligation to respect the privacy of their patients. Then there is the Department of Veterans Affairs. That agency's inspector general played team ball recently by clearing Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center of wrongdoing for placing a camera disguised as a smoke detector in the room of a brain-damaged veteran without telling his family. This is a clear violation of ethics even for an obtuse bureaucracy with no real sense of accountability. Congress should demand some answers.

A report by the VA inspector general released last week said the camera was "reasonable" because Haley officials suspected the family might have interfered with the nursing care provided to 81-year-old James Carnegie. That conclusion is not supported by the facts. Haley did not monitor the feed in real time. The arrangement was so sloppy that nearly a week's worth of video from the monthlong recording period was lost on the hard drive. And Haley did not instruct the staff what to do in the event a medical emergency showed up on the video. So how exactly could the monitor have contributed to patient care?

If the purpose was patient care, why did Haley decide to conceal the camera under false pretenses in the first place, then mislead the public by falsely claiming that the family had authorized the camera and that the video feed was not being recorded? The inspector general's office, in its report, tries to sidestep these questions by dancing around the chronology. "The patient's family was aware of the camera when it was activated" in June 2012, the report wrote. But so what? The family was "aware" because it was irate after being told about the camera by a maintenance worker and was threatening to call a lawyer. The point is not that the family was "aware" but that the camera was installed without its knowledge and consent and that the videotaping occurred over the family's protests.

Haley declined to comment on the report. That may be just as well, given that its conflicting stories on the case have destroyed its credibility. That's why agencies have an inspector general, but in this case the in-house watchdog helped whitewash the trouble. The report noted that hidden cameras have been used by the VA in the past when criminal activity was suspected. Yet no crimes were alleged here.

This report is nothing more than a drive-by attempt to bury a scandal and paint the family as such a pain to the staff that it warranted violating the patient's privacy. Sen. Bill Nelson and other members of Congress who have expressed concerns about the case should demand that the VA come back and offer serious answers.