Allegations of privacy breaches multiply

More veterans are coming forward with claims their private medical information was distributed or widely accessed by federal bureaucrats in what some say were attempts to smear reputations.

OTTAWA — More veterans are coming forward with claims their private medical information was distributed or widely accessed by federal bureaucrats in what some say were attempts to smear reputations.

At least three new cases came to light Tuesday, widening a privacy scandal triggered by veterans activist Sean Bruyea who acquired hundred of pages of government documents that improperly divulge his confidential medical and psychiatric files.

Longtime veterans critic Louise Richard, who suffers post-traumatic stress, cites an internal memo she obtained that shows the current deputy minister of veterans affairs was extensively briefed early last year about her private medical information.

The briefing was held prior to a meeting Richard had with Deputy Minister Suzanne Tining, at which the two were to discuss Gulf War Syndrome, a chronic condition the federal government does not recognize as pensionable.

The former military nurse says her medical information and complaints about how Veterans Affairs handled her file had nothing to do the subject of their discussion.

“These people that wrote the brief for deputy minister, they have no medical knowledge,” Richard said in an interview with The Canadian Press.

“Where does this sense of entitlement come from within (Veterans Affairs)? They seem to be able to do what they please with our medical records and share what they want, with who they want and all of this with bureaucrats who have no medical knowledge or expertise.”

The memo was dated Jan. 14, 2009.

It was not immediately clear how widely Richard’s information was shared. She is still poring over 3,662 pages of information released following a Privacy Act request she made.

Several boxes of documents arrived in spring 2009, but Richard said she was afraid to open them because she was overwhelmed by the thought the department had written so much about her.

The packages remained sealed until Bruyea came forward two weeks ago with evidence that his private information had been widely circulated.

Personal medical data, including a quote from Bruyea’s psychiatrist, found their way into a briefing for Greg Thompson, the former Conservative minister of veterans affairs.

Privacy Commissioner Jennifer Stoddart, who’s investigating Bruyea’s allegation, last week announced she would conduct an audit of Veterans Affairs because of potential systemic problems handling sensitive information.

Veterans ombudsman Pat Stogran says a printout of his veterans file shows it been accessed more than 400 times — and wonders whether his post-traumatic stress evaluation has been used to discredit him.

Veterans Affairs Minister Jean-Pierre Blackburn says he’s aware of other veterans who are concerned their privacy has been violated.

The minister urged them to contact Stoddart’s office immediately, and acknowledged for the first time his department has a problem handling sensitive information.

“There are policies and processes in place to ensure veterans’ information that is contained in our files and systems is protected from unauthorized use and disclosure,” Blackburn said in a statement Tuesday.

“These processes appear not to be sufficient.”

Blackburn said he’s considering imposing stiffer penalties on staff who break privacy rules, up to and including dismissal. Currently staff can be suspended for a week.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, an expert in privacy law, said he’s been contacted by two other veterans who claim their private information has been misused.

One of the cases involves sensitive medical information allegedly leaked to an outside employer by a Veterans Affairs staffer — an allegation that is also the subject an internal investigation.

Drapeau declined to reveal the names of his clients or discuss any other circumstances.

“The last thing they want to do is … speaking to the media or making it public. Most of them are shocked and go to ground.”

“It’s wrong,” Drapeau said. “It’s more shock and more devastating because a private citizen doesn’t really have the tools to fight back, whereas advocates, like Sean, know what to do.”

Richard said somebody has to answer for what’s happened.

“As a registered nurse, I’m very aware of the confidentiality and protection of medical documents and I’m held legally accountable for any breach or misuse or interpretation of medical information,” she said.

“But yet you look at Veterans Affairs — it’s totally beyond me. It’s unacceptable that no one is assuming responsibility.”

Richard and Bruyea were fixtures on the federal scene five years ago, before the appointment of a veterans ombudsman.

They advocated passionately for injured soldiers to receive better consideration and benefits from the federal government, and fought their own personal battles with the bureaucracy.

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