By COLLIN BREAUX
News Herald Reporter
Posted at 8:00 AM
“They have a right to do a urinalysis; it’s the drug test that’s a search of your person,” veteran Robert Williams said. “Just because they have a sample or tissue of mine does not mean they have a right to test it.”
PANAMA CITY BEACH – When Robert Williams asked for his lab work after a recent VA appointment, he was just curious about his cholesterol. What he discovered instead were the results of an undisclosed drug screening, leading the Navy veteran to protest what he considers a privacy infringement.
Williams, of Mexico Beach, went to the Panama City Beach clinic for a regularly scheduled appointment in April. That’s when he saw the drug screening.
“My first reaction was, ‘That’s kind of odd,’ ” he said.
And Williams isn’t the only one who found it odd, because while the VA’s regional provider said the test does not require consent, a national VA representative and a representative from Sen. Marco Rubio’s office both said the tests are not part of the VA’s policy and aren’t to be given without the consent of the patient.
Drug Test results 2
Drug Test results 1
Williams provided The News Herald with a copy of his screening, which tested negative for cocaine and opiates, among other drugs. But he wasn’t concerned about the results – Williams is adamantly opposed to using drugs – but with why the testing was done at all and how many others are being tested unknowingly, calling the screening an infringement of Fourth Amendment rights.
“I don’t think anybody can defend this as the way that our resources ought to be used and what they ought to be doing,” he said. “It’s an invasion of my privacy. ... I don’t have a problem with employers doing it as a function of your employment, but I absolutely have a problem with a government agency like VA testing us with no probable cause, with no medical necessity, with no indication that there is any kind of abuse situation going on.”
The VA defended its drug testing when contacted by The News Herald. A representative of the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System (GCVHCS), the health agency’s regional provider, said the VA – like other medical practitioners – may order a test of a veteran’s urine, saliva and blood because the agency is required to monitor veterans’ prescriptions of controlled substances such as amphetamines, opioids and benzodiazepines.
“This is not an invasion of privacy,” GCVHCS spokesman Jerron Barnett wrote in a prepared statement. “This test does not require consent from the veteran, but the veteran is free to do the test or not. ... If there is proof a veteran isn’t taking his/her controlled substances responsibly, or doesn’t allow the provider to monitor the effectiveness of the medication(s) prescribed, the provider may stop the veteran’s prescription.”
Williams, however, said he takes only one prescription, for testosterone – not one of the controlled substances the VA is required to monitor.
“They have a right to do a urinalysis; it’s the drug test that’s a search of your person,” he said. “Just because they have a sample or tissue of mine does not mean they have a right to test it.”
The VA itself has given contradictory statements on whether discrete drug testing is allowed.
While the GCVHCS maintained the VA has a right to drug test any veteran, a national representative gave a different answer. In an email to The News Herald, Veterans Health Administration (VHA) Office of Communications spokeswoman Michele Hammonds said GCVHCS’ statement was inaccurate, instead saying VA patients have the right to accept or refuse any medical treatment or procedure recommended to them.
“Information about certain tests such as drug screens are particularly sensitive and may have consequences that the patient might reasonably want to avoid,” Hammonds wrote. “For these tests, providers must obtain specific oral consent and document it in the patient’s record.”
A representative of Rubio’s office also indicated the screens are not part of VA policy. In an email to Williams, Rubio’s Senior Constituent Services Representative Terri Finger wrote, ”... regarding the VA instituting drug-testing at veterans’ annual physicals ... I checked with the VA GCVHCS Congressional Liaison at VAMC Biloxi and was told there is no such policy.”
However, Jim Strickland, a Vietnam-era veteran, VA watchdog and retired health care professional, said there is nothing illegal, immoral or underhanded about a VA physician drug testing veterans.
“Why would anyone tell (a veteran) beforehand?” asked Strickland, who lives north of Jacksonville. “It’s a clinical lab test. Why would he be offended if he got screened for drugs? It’s health care.”
Strickland sees the issue from many angles. In addition to his military and health care background, he sits on the advisory board for StatesideLegal.org, a website that helps veterans with legal advice and accessing benefits, and has written an advice column for them over the years. He also runs the website VAwatchdog.org.
“Doctors try to treat drug abuse as a health care problem,” he said. “If they don’t know what your status is, they can’t treat you.”
But Williams isn’t convinced.
“The real question is who authorized this?” he said. “Whose idea was it? And who told (my doctor) his patients had to be drug-screened?”
He said the VA’s inconsistent responses are in line with many issues plaguing the agency.
“That’s the thing about VA; they have deniability,” Williams said. “Everything about their process is built with an opaque protection for the people so you’ll never get to the bottom of this, whose decision this is.”
Along with questions over whether undisclosed drug tests are legal are questions about what the VA is doing with the test results.
GCVHCS’ Barnett said in addition to checking for possible prescription drug interactions, “VA maintains substance abuse programs to help veterans with drug addiction and/or abuse, should that be necessary.”
However, he also said “a veteran won’t be denied VA health care benefits if he or she is eligible for those benefits because of drug use.”
Strickland agreed, saying in his experience veterans most often are afraid a positive drug test will cause a loss in VA disability benefits – which might be their only income – but he advised veterans not to panic.
“No one loses VA disability benefits because they’re smoking pot,” he said. “The worst thing they will say is they won’t prescribe any more narcotic pain medication if you’re smoking pot or doing cocaine.”
However, Williams said VA’s insistence that they do not punish veterans for drug use doesn’t justify the testing.
“We don’t know if they’re using this for hierarchy of transplant lists or what they’re using it for. But what they’re not doing with it is helping me,” he said. “If you’re gonna test, test for something that could benefit me, like what the Red Cross tests for. It’s gonna break someone’s heart to find out they have HIV or syphilis, but at least it will benefit them to know.”
Williams isn’t interested in becoming the poster child for a battle against the VA, and he doesn’t want anyone to be punished. What he wants is accountability – and awareness.
“Here’s what VA needs to do,” he said. “First, stop doing this. Second, figure out how it happened, and third, fix it.”
He has reached out to several local representatives for help stopping the practice. Though representatives of Rubio and Rep. Neal Dunn did respond – “No veteran should be screened for drugs without their prior consent, which is the current national policy at the VA,” Dunn said through a spokeswoman – Williams does not anticipate any action.
“Even when you try to use their constituent help program, they make a milquetoast inquiry and accept the VA’s response,” Williams said. “Every one of us fights VA by ourselves. Every one, bar none.”
So until the discrepancy is addressed, Williams will settle for awareness.
“Every vet that goes to that place and is going to have a urinalysis needs to know this is happening,” he said. “We shouldn’t wait until the first person gets damaged by it – we should stop it now.”
Strickland agreed, saying the VA should be upfront by creating a policy about drug screening so veterans aren’t avoiding health care and the agency doesn’t waste taxpayer dollars.
“It’s a sensitive issue, and veterans have a right to know what to expect,” he said. “If drug screens are there for every vet, we need to see the policy. Otherwise, VA should be more transparent so that vets aren’t in fear of seeking health care.”