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Files of 1,100 veterans thrown in dumpster at Hot Springs VA

More embarrassment struck the beleaguered Department of Veterans Affairs Friday when it was revealed that files containing personal information on 1,100 military veterans were mistakenly thrown out with the garbage.

Someone tossed a box containing the files into a dumpster on Friday, May 15, during an office move at the Hot Springs campus of the VA Black Hills Health Care System. A different employee noticed the box and files in the dumpster Sunday, May 17, and the items were retrieved and secured by Veterans Affairs police.

The Fort Meade-based Black Hills system, which serves 19,000 veterans residing in South Dakota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, announced the dumpster blunder Friday in a news release. The release did not divulge the number of veterans affected; that information emerged during a Journal interview Friday with Teresa Forbes, public affairs officer for the VA Black Hills.

She said an investigation was conducted, but it did not determine which employee was at fault.

“The investigation found that during a regular office move, that the box of files were inadvertently thrown in the receptacle,” Forbes said. “It was just an unfortunate mistake during an office move.”

Because the veterans’ files remained in the dumpster on the Hot Springs VA campus until they were retrieved, Forbes said the VA is “very confident that we don’t anticipate that their information has been targeted or will be misused.”

That explanation did not placate VA critics, including U.S. Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., who said the incident was indicative of "gross mismanagement."

Forbes said the files were “part of a patient list generated for internal compliance purposes.” The list did not include individual medical histories, but it did have veterans’ names, Social Security numbers, phone numbers and addresses.

The VA on Wednesday sent letters to the 1,100 veterans or their families advising them of options to check on the security of their personal information. Forbes said that action was required by policies and protocols.

Asked why the VA waited more than two months after the incident to inform veterans, Forbes said, “VA Black Hills worked within the time frames set by our policies to ensure the investigation was thorough, all affected veterans were identified, and resources put in place to assist veterans.”

The Journal obtained copies of the letters sent to veterans. The three options proposed to those concerned about the privacy of their information are to obtain an annual free credit report from one of the three national credit-reporting agencies; to enroll in a 1-year, no-charge identity theft monitoring service operated by a VA corporate partner; or to request that a fraud alert be added to their credit report, which the VA acknowledged “could also delay the process when you seek to obtain credit.”

The incident is the latest in a string of embarrassments that have kept the broader VA system embroiled in scandal for more than a year. It began in April 2014 when media outlets reported that dozens of veterans died while waiting for care at Phoenix VA facilities.

The fallout included resignations at the top level of the VA and internal investigations that revealed long wait times and improper scheduling practices at some VA facilities around the country.

One of the VA systems that was flagged as “requiring further review” by a spring 2014 VA access audit was the VA Black Hills system — specifically its outpatient clinics in Rapid City, Faith, Isabel and Eagle Butte.

A subsequent Freedom of Information Act request by the Journal revealed that, according to internal interviews conducted during the access audit:

• Employees somewhere within the VA Black Hills system were instructed to manipulate desired dates to make them look closer to the next appointment available.

• At Rapid City employees were instructed not to use the Electronic Wait List program.

• And employees at the VA’s Prairie Health clinics — in Faith, Isabel and Eagle Butte — used outside logs to schedule patients with concerns regarding personal identity verification and personally identifiable information.

Concurrently with that scandal, VA Black Hills has been pursuing a controversial reorganization of its system that could close some operations on the historic Hot Springs campus and move them to Rapid City. That proposal has met staunch opposition from the Hot Springs community.

Friday, Sen. Thune said the Hot Springs VA dumpster incident is “unfortunately illustrative of the continued decline of the Hot Springs VA and the indifference shown to it by the Veterans Administration.”

“Congress should pass additional VA accountability measures," Thune added, "and the Black Hills VA leadership needs to focus on restoring, not degrading, our Hot Springs VA.”

John Renstrom, a Vietnam-era Navy veteran who lives in Hot Springs and formerly worked for the VA, alleged that the dumpster incident could be a consequence of management practices that have created staffing shortages at VA Hot Springs. He compared the facility to a 5-star restaurant with outstanding facilities and a line of customers out the door, but with only “two waitresses.”

“And that’s the VA system right now,” Renstrom said, “and in the top floor they can’t understand what the heck’s going on.”

Contact Seth Tupper at seth.tupper@rapidcityjournal.com

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