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Lawmaker Slams VA for 'Big Brother' Surveillance

The chairman of the House Veterans Affairs Committee has filed legislation requiring Department of Veterans Affairs' hospital personnel to have the consent of a patient or other authorized party before setting up surveillance cameras in the veteran’s room.

Rep. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., said in a statement Thursday his “Veterans Privacy Act” is a response to a Tampa VA hospital’s admission it installed a camera within a smoke detector in the room of a brain-damaged patient without informing his family.

The VA’s Office of the Inspector General, in a just-released report, found the hospital’s actions “reasonable” because it was intended to discover “who or what was interfering with nursing care of the patient.” The IG also found that such surveillance cameras are widely used across the VA healthcare system.

But Miller said the actions of the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa were bizarre and outrageous.

“To think that some VA employees actually thought it a good idea to covertly record a patient with a video camera disguised as a smoke detector really just boggles the mind,” Miller said in the statement.

Under Miller’s law, exceptions to the patient- or family member-consent requirement include a determination by a doctor or psychologist that the recording is medically necessary, a legal warrant is obtained, or the camera is in a public setting where there is no expectation of privacy.

Miller called the IG’s findings “worse” than the actual surveillance, and said his proposed law “will keep covert, Big Brother tactics out of VA medical centers and protect the sacred trust that should exist between VA and veteran patients and their families.”

The patient, who for privacy reasons is not identified, was transferred from a VA hospital in Miami to the Tampa facility in August 2011. Over the course of a 399-day stay at Tampa, there were conflicts between the veteran’s family and the hospital. The hospital did not meet many of the family’s expectations and many hospital staff felt abused by some of the patient’s family members, according to the IG.

The family discovered the surveillance camera in a smoke-detector cover in June 2012. The family’s complaints reached the Tampa Tribune, which contacted the hospital and was told the claim was not true. The hospital admitted to the surveillance camera the next month, prompting Miller and fellow lawmakers Reps. Bill Nelson, R-Fla., and Mike Michaud, D-Fla., to request the VA investigation.

The IG said interviews with staff and reviews of reports, notes and personal emails all indicated the camera was installed for the safety of the veteran patient.

“It was expected that the camera would ascertain who or what was interfering with nursing care of the patient,” the investigators wrote. Problems included changes to the rate of infusion on the patient’s feeding and medication pumps, to the incline of his bed and his position on the bed without orders or explanation.

“We concluded that given the documented evidence, the use of the camera for these patient safety concerns was reasonable,” the IG stated.

As part of its investigation into the use of video surveillance cameras at the Tampa facility, the IG also looked into the use of the cameras across the VA system. It found that all VA facilities are using them, with an average of 148 installed per facility. The Tampa hospital has 279 surveillance cameras installed, according to the IG.

The IG recommends the VA make sure it has in place policies governing the uses of covert and overt video surveillance cameras in a clinical setting, including public notification, informed consent, approval and responsibility for use of the cameras. Officials also should consider restrictions on the use of personal video recording in VA facilities.

Video surveillance cameras are required in specific areas of hospitals within the VA healthcare system, the IG reported. These include closed-circuit TV for all entrances and exits at mental health residential rehab programs. Recording cameras also are recommended for pharmacy vaults and all storage areas containing working stocks of controlled substances. Where they are present, childcare centers and canteens are required to use CCTV for security reasons.

The IG found that about 75 percent of VA healthcare facilities reported that staff-monitored video surveillance cameras are located in clinical areas, among these mental health units, pharmacies, emergency rooms, intensive care units, and geriatrics and extended care units.

For safety and security, surveillance cameras also are standard in non-clinical areas such as parking lots, garages, building entrances and exits, common areas, waiting rooms, stairwells and research areas.

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