WASHINGTON — Department of Veterans Affairs employees are suing the government, accusing the VA of breaching their privacy by giving fellow workers and some patients access to their Social Security numbers and dates of birth.
The class-action suit on behalf of the VA’s 180,000 employees seeks $1,000 for each one, the minimum amount under the 1974 Privacy Act. If successful, that would total about $180 million.
The suit says that through an internal patient record system, employees’ personal information appeared along with the medical information on patients. Workers at any VA facility could check up on VA workers anywhere else, said the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Wisconsin last month. It said there were no warning screens or logs of who accessed the information.
Jim Bensen, a VA spokesman, declined Thursday to comment on the suit’s details.
“We take the issue very seriously, not just veteran information but also employee information,” Bensen said.
Employees said they were worried about more than fellow workers peeking at their private information.
“We even have patients who pull this information up,” said Sandy Bond, a plaintiff who works at a VA hospital in Leavenworth, Kan. “Incentive therapy job patients have access to the computer. These people are convicts, substance abusers, (people with) mental illnesses.”
The allegations follow a House committee hearing in September in which lawmakers grilled VA officials about lax computer security.
Witnesses said that during a planned test, hackers could break into VA computers and quickly gain full access to any VA system, including billing privileges and the personal records of any veteran.
The department has planned an “Information Security Stand Down” on Friday for all VA employees. Acting Secretary of Veterans Affairs Hershel W. Gober will speak to the department’s employees via closed-circuit television about the importance of computer security.
Rep. Terry Everett, R-Ala., who convened the September hearing, said he could not comment on pending litigation. Everett, who chairs the House Veterans Affairs oversight subcommittee, said in a statement that he was aware of the allegations, and his panel “is continuing to review the matter.”
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who chairs the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, declined to comment for the same reason.
Bond, a union leader for the Leavenworth hospital’s workers, learned the problem from a fellow employee earlier this year. Bond filed a grievance that was handled over the summer by an independent arbiter who sided with the employees.
However, the arbiter had no authority to award damages or attorneys’ fees. Bond and her fellow employees then decided to sue.
When she told her supervisors about the problem, Bond said she was informed it involved software that affected every VA facility nationwide and would be difficult to fix.
Since the arbitration, the VA has installed a software patch that blocks out the Social Security numbers and dates of birth for the workers. However, Bond said the information remains available through another software program used by the VA.
Albert Schmidt, the other named plaintiff, works at a VA hospital in Milwaukee and suspects someone tried to use his information illegally. He said a credit card company’s fraud department contacted him and said a Houston resident tried to open an account with Schmidt’s date of birth and Social Security number.
“It really scares me,” Schmidt said. “There really is not a way somebody could find my Social Security number and date of birth other than through the VA. They didn’t have my address.”
Schmidt said he learned from discussions at a federal employees’ conference that it has become standard practice at some VA hospitals for workers to check a new employees’ birth dates to find out how old they are.
“One person was irate because she was lying about her age for some time,” Schmidt said. “She was very hurt about it. She said she doesn’t like to see her date of birth accessed by other people, even if it’s only to check to see how old (she is).”
When Bond first brought her complaint to supervisors, she just wanted the problem fixed. Now she says she’s frustrated and saddened by both her employer and Washington officials. She says they failed to help her and her co-workers.
“I was totally shocked that the VA would do something like this,” she said. ”... I was baffled that the people in D.C. that were supposed to be helping us didn’t even help.”
On the Net: Department of Veterans Affairs: http://www.va.gov