VA Secret Disclosed
By Deborah Chase, PhD
July 9, 2018
The latest government reports indicate there are more than 21 million living veterans. Of the 21 million, only a small percentage utilize the services of Vet Centers, which is a highly supported VA program. For those veterans who use Vet Center services, they know the services to be a very nice accouterment from the larger VA setting for counseling, education, and support. Also, many veterans find Vet Center staff members useful in support of their disability claims. Vet Center counselors and support staff tend to be user-friendly, compassionate, and eager to assist veterans who are pursuing disability claims. However, there is one thing many Vet Center counselors neglect to inform veterans about in greater detail.
Initially, when a veteran visits a Vet Center counselor, the counselor is obligated to inform a veteran about the limitations of privacy and confidentiality that is inherent in the VA system. The counselor will inform a veteran that all of their information with the Vet Center may not be private or confidential if they [the veteran] become a danger to themselves or others. The one thing many counselors unknowingly glaze over is that their clinical notes are subject to scrutiny from the medical staff at their local VAMC. In other words, all VA Medical Center staff members can simply login to their VA Clinical Note system and view notes from Vet Center counselors, even though most Vet Centers are miles from their local VAMC.
However, all Vet Center clients are covered by a legal term in psychology known as “privilege.” In other words, due to the client – therapist relationship, information shared between the two may not be discussed outside of the relationship without permission from the client.
Therefore, even though other VA staff members may see information about a veteran in a therapists clinical notes, that information is protected by law. For instance, if a VA nurse were to look at clinical notes from a Vet Center counselor, and he/she openly discusses the information with a colleague, the nurse may be subjected to legal indictment.
Some very savvy veterans who understand how the VA works have gone out of their way to inform their Vet Center counselors that their progress notes are to be constructed in a way to protect their privacy. While some Vet Center counselors may struggle with how to handle such a direct request, as it has come to my attention, all will honor the veterans request and at the same time, follow their professions Code of Conduct and professional ethics.