Data theft leaves more doubts about the VA

It is simply amazing that one employee who takes his work home can lose personal identity data on 26.5 million people. But that is what happened with the theft of data concerning Department of Veterans Affairs patients and their spouses.

A VA analyst reportedly took some work home and the data of the millions of veterans were apparently stolen. The information included Social Security Numbers and birthdays of all veterans discharged after 1975 and some discharged before 1975 if they had filed a claim. I fall into that first category, so I am not exactly thrilled to say the least. We used to have a saying in the Navy regarding what actions superiors might take against a sailor for some screw-up. It was: “What are they going to do, take away our birthdays?” I guess they have now.

When I worked as a reporter I spent a number of years covering veterans issues. I also have been a VA patient for more than 10 years. So, I have seen the various problems the department has had over the years. Primarily, the major problem has been funding by Congress. VA funding always seems to come up short until someone raises hell about the level of dollars and shames Congress into putting more money in VA appropriations. Usually the amount of money added is barely enough or still inadequate.

The VA bills itself as a 21st century medical system with its prescription drugs being dispensed by computerized systems along with the department’s goal of having all patient records computerized. But I have found flaws in both technological advances. First, prescriptions sometimes may appear to have been mailed — maybe so and maybe not — but they don’t always get to the patients at times. Also, in the places where I have seen VA doctors and nurses using the electronic records, normally the last computer page is all that is referred to by the practitioner. One doesn’t see them going back and finding the two surgeries I had on my cervical spine. They only get this information if they know it by heart, such as might be the case but not always will be the case, with a primary care physician. Or else, the patient is left to figure out if the doctor or specialist needs to be told something about one’s medical history that is relevant.

In such instances, why even bother having a complete medical record computerized when the physician or nurse doesn’t bother to carefully look at one’s records?

The latest foul-up involving the VA makes me seriously ponder just how secure will be an online health care initiative the department has been developing. The “My Health Vet” Web site is meant to give medical information to individual VA patients. Veterans will be able to fill prescriptions online as well as access copayment balances, appointments and key portions of health records.

Security of My Health Vet has been debated but I certainly have more reservations about having my health records online since it appears that easy for my VA identity data to be stolen.

It will be interesting to see if VA will address My Health Vet and other techlogical issues in the wake of this latest embarrassment, or whether they will just go on as if nothing happened.

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