VA Releases Ethics Framework to Govern Data Usage

Published: February 24, 2021

Federal Market AnalysisAdministration TransitionInformation TechnologyVA

This week, the VA launched guidance to frame the ethical access and use of veteran data with the intent of further protecting veteran privacy.

Key Takeaways:

  • VA’s new policy emphasizes the necessity for continued ethical use and protection of veteran data.
  • VA’s framework will help guide the appropriate use of veteran data for the benefit of the veteran population.

The new policy consists of nine principles, which will serve as an online resource for veterans, staff, VA partners and other stakeholders. According to VA’s press release, “These principles reinforce VA’s standards of data privacy and protection…”

The policy requires that all parties who oversee access to and use of veteran data must adhere to the principles of the framework, which consist of the following:

  1. The primary goal for use of veteran data is for the good of veterans.
  2. Veteran data should be used in a manner that ensures equity to veterans.
  3. The sharing of veteran data should be based on the veteran’s meaningful choice.
  4. Access to and exchange of veteran data should be transparent and consistent.
  5. De-identified veteran data should not be reidentified without authorization.
  6. There is an obligation of reciprocity for gains made using veteran data.
  7. All parties are obligated to ensure data security, quality and integrity of veteran data.
  8. Veterans should be able to access their own information.
  9. Veterans have the right to request amendments to their own information.

According to Acting VA Under Secretary for Health Richard Stone, M.D., “VA’s principle-based ethics framework takes a proactive approach to data management and privacy by setting standards for our partners to follow.” Stone says, “VA is applying this framework to all data interoperability initiatives, including those tied to our COVID-19 response and modernization efforts.”

Along with input from veterans, the ethics framework was developed by the Data Ethics Work Group established by the VA Interoperability Leadership team and the Veterans Health Administration’s (VHA) National Center for Ethics in Health Care.

VA is committed to ethical data practices and promotes privacy, confidentiality and autonomy of veteran data, which garners veteran trust in the department.

In some ways the VA data ethics policy builds on the aspirations of Biden’s memo on Restoring Trust in Government Through Scientific Integrity and Evidence-Based Policymaking. The purpose of the memorandum is to ensure federal agencies develop and apply scientific-integrity policies that rely on scientific or technological data for policymaking. The memo also supports “appropriate protections for privacy.” Biden’s memo supports access to federal data for research purposes, but states the data should be made available “in a manner that protects privacy and confidential or classified information, and any other information protected from disclosure…”

As apparent from several memos and Executive Orders from the Biden Administration, data will be a valuable and important component for policy and decision-making.  Expect the VA to continue to maximize the use of data to support veteran care and research, but in a way that ethical and protects veterans' privacy and confidentiality.