TAMPA - The I-Team has uncovered hundreds of thousands dollars' worth of expensive equipment and property at VA hospitals in Tampa and Bay Pines has been lost or stolen in the last two years.
The list includes televisions, laptop computers, and microscopes. But the most serious loss was not the most expensive item.
A camera, used to photograph women before and after surgery for breast cancer, was discovered missing from a clinic at the James A. Haley VA Hospital last November.
"The photos in question,” an investigative report obtained by the I-Team reads, "may potentially be graphic and personal in nature."
"Everything goes into a tailspin when you're diagnosed with breast cancer. You're trusting your information is going to be confidential. I have some women who choose not to tell anyone," says Shelby Coriarty, who helps runs a breast cancer support group at Florida Hospital Tampa Division.
Coriarty knows first hand about the emotional toll breast cancer can take. She has battled it herself and knows exactly what any woman whose images were on the missing camera would think.
"She is going to sit in her own world at night. She might loose sleep over it and wonder, 'Is my picture out there?' because she doesn't know," Coriarty says.
The Haley VA Hospital treats an estimated 114,000 veterans from around the Tampa Bay area.
The camera disappeared from the Plastic Surgery Clinic. The VA's reports says it also contained “The social security information from the patients" whose photos were on it.
An incredible invasion of privacy says Jay Wolfson, a medical privacy expert at USF.
"It needs to be used and managed in a way that guarantees to the highest possible possibility that it's not going to be lost and stolen," Wolfson says.
The VA won't say much about the incident except the lost camera was never recovered and as for the physician responsible for it, "Appropriate action was taken."
But the I-Team has uncovered the lost camera is just one example of hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost or stolen equipment at the Haley VA Hospital over the last two years.
The missing items range from a $14,000 computer, to a thumb drive containing encrypted patient information.
"Putting that sort of information on a thumb drive makes no sense. It's just dangerous," Wolfson told the I-Team.
While every company or organization occasionally loses property and equipment, the I-Team has discovered as far back as 2007 that the Government Accountability Office was issuing reports about the "Continuing risk of theft and loss" at VA facilities around the nation."
The GAO blamed a lack of "guidance for creating records of inventory," a lack of accountability and inaccurate records.
"Well, this is just ridiculous," said Florida Senator Bill Nelson.
Nelson sent a letter to the Secretary of Veterans Affairs demanding answers after we showed him some of the 1200 pages of documents we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.
Some of the examples include missing medical equipment, from microscopes to surgical equipment worth thousands of dollars each. Also missing are two brand new 52-inch high-def TV's which disappeared out of a supposedly secured cage. Total price -- $3,000. A surveillance system used to monitor areas of the hospital is gone. And a 32-inch high-def TV disappeared off the wall of a patients' waiting room.
The grand total of missing or stolen equipment over the last 2 years? Over a million dollars.
"We've had these kind of problems before, and it boils down to either this is theft or it's messed up records or it's both and it's got to stop," Senator Nelson said.
In comparison, Bay Pines VA Hospital didn't lose nearly as much. Still, there's been over $152,000 in missing or stolen items over the last two years. And in case after case investigators cited "inadequate/inappropriate inventory management control.”
We wanted to ask the VA why, if the GAO first recommended better tracking and inventory procedures four years ago, are we still finding reports saying no system is in place.
The VA refused requests for an interview.
Instead we got a statement which reads, “The percentage of items that are determined to be un-accounted for is small in comparison to total inventory -- .04 percent in Tampa and .02 percent at Bay Pines."
The VA also says it offered all the woman whose photos and social security numbers were stored in the missing digital camera free credit monitoring.
Shelby Coriarty says that is unlikely to make the women involved feel better. "You don't know where the information is, and that's scary, just given the technology that's out there. It's scary to know who could have this information and what they could possibly do with it," Coriarty says.
The VA says new inventory procedures went into effect at both hospitals this spring. But according to documents we obtained, expensive items are still going missing.
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