Records use at VA forum draws a complaint

A hearing's "visual aid" broke federal law, the accuser says.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
Published January 4, 2008

TAMPA - What the Department of Veterans Affairs calls a "visual aid," a Land O'Lakes man calls a clear violation of federal law.

A political opponent of U.S. Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite's, R-Brooksville, has filed a complaint with the VA saying patient confidentiality law was breached during an inquiry about unlicensed psychology at a VA hospital.

Jim King, a Republican who is vying for Brown-Waite's House seat, said he filed the complaint with the "privacy officer" at the James A. Haley VA Medical Center in Tampa, the nation's busiest VA hospital.

The complaint focuses on a pile of patient case notes Haley's chief of staff, Dr. Edward Cutolo Jr., displayed at a public forum on Dec. 28. The forum addressed allegations about Haley psychologists.

Cutolo said a review of two months of case notes by unlicensed psychologists at Haley showed the overwhelming majority had the required co-signature of a supervisor - proving all were properly supervised.

Art Wu, Republican staff director of the House Veterans Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, said at the forum that he also confirmed the signatures.

King said Wu's review violated federal patient privacy law.

Both the VA and Brown-Waite's office - Brown-Waite is the subcommittee's ranking member - deny any breach of confidentiality.

"Congress oversees the VA, so we have to be able to view VA records," Brown-Waite spokesman Charlie Keller said on Thursday. "It's not as if we were posting them on the Internet or running around making copies to hand out to people."

In a written response Thursday to King's complaint, Cutolo said the pile of records was a "visual aid."

"At no time at the forum did anyone view the contents of the records," he wrote, saying Wu and another subcommittee staff member simply viewed signatures and not the content of the files.

"I was in control of the notes, and no note content was reviewed," Cutolo said.

But King said a violation of law still occurred. "You can't open a file without getting a signed patient release," he said.

At the forum, Wu confirmed that he reviewed just signatures, not the content of the files.

But Wu said at the forum, "I think I'm probably in violation by not signing the HIPAA requirement in looking at some of these clinical records yesterday with Dr. Cutolo," apparently referring to a signed patient release.

HIPAA is an acronym for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, provisions of which strictly govern the release of patient records.

The Florida Board of Psychology has received a complaint that says unlicensed psychologists at Haley receive little, if any, supervision. The VA vehemently denies the allegation.

William R. Levesque can be reached at levesque@sptimes.com or at 813 226-3436.


Health privacy laws

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 is a federal law that, among many provisions, generally forbids a health care provider from sharing identifiable medical information without a patient's permission.

It also forbids the use of patient information for marketing purposes and ensures a patient access to his or her own medical information. The law includes fines and criminal penalties for improper disclosure of private health information.