• 12 FEB 13


    As the Compliance Officer for our company, I follow HIPAA news closely; the news last week has left me scratching my head. Let me start by saying that this is not meant to be about gun control. We were all shocked and horrified by the recent events in Connecticut and we all want to feel safe going out anywhere in public without fear of being killed.

    Recently President Obama announced his proposal to strengthen the gun control laws in our country, citing the need for increased safety. One in particular was this: “Address unnecessary legal barriers, particularly relating to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which may prevent states from making information available to the background check system.” The very next point says: “Improve incentives for states to share information with the background check system.”

    What does this mean? Is there going to be a database of anyone who has been treated for a mental health condition? And if so, will that information be accessible to those doing background checks? Will patients have any control over how and when their information is shared?

    How do we define “mental health issues?”  Are things like anxiety and depression considered to be mental health issues? If someone experiences the loss of a loved one and is given an antidepressant to help with the grieving process, does that now label them as having a mental health disorder? Would the patient then lose control over who has access to that information?

    Two other notable measures in President Obama’s plan to reduce gun violence states:

    “Clarify that no federal law prevents health care providers from warning law enforcement authorities about threats of violence: Doctors and other mental health professionals play an important role in protecting the safety of their patients and the broader community by reporting direct and credible threats of violence to the authorities.”  It’s been my understanding that those who treat patients with mental health issues have always had a duty to report potential threats of violence. Covered entities may disclose protected health information that they believe is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to a person or the public, when such disclosure is made to someone they believe can prevent or lessen the threat (including the target of the threat).

    “Protect the rights of health care providers to talk to their patients about gun safety: Doctors and other health care providers also need to be able to ask about firearms in their patients’ homes and safe storage of those firearms, especially if their patients show signs of certain mental illnesses or if they have a young child or mentally ill family member at home.”  So what happens here? Are physicians now expected to ask all patients if they have a gun? Are we asking physicians to become the ones who now collect information on who owns a gun and then report it? And if so, report it to whom?

    If things aren’t confusing enough, last Thursday The Department of Health and Human Services announced their revisions to the HIPAA Privacy and Security Rules. Many of these are designed to strengthen the protection we are all supposed to have under this law related to our health information. As I read through this document, I wondered how they will still be able to tell patients they have control over where their information is disclosed.

    If all these things are implemented, what happens to the doctor patient relationship? Will fewer people actually seek the help they need because they fear being put into some kind of national database? Does our right to privacy related to our health information become eroded?

    As I mentioned earlier, the recent events in our country are tragic. Yet, in the end, would any of these things really stopped what happened? The man in Connecticut didn’t own or buy any of those guns, his mother did. He would not have had a background check done, and none of his physicians would have had to report he had weapons. These new measures would not have prevented any of it.

    It is my hope that we can find ways to reduce these serious crimes in our country. Our laws need to be properly enforced without eroding the protection I should have as a patient and the privacy we are afforded under HIPAA regulations. I don’t believe I need to discuss gun ownership with my physician. What’s next? Is my physician going to ask me how many sharp knives I have in my home? It’s a slippery slope in my opinion and I hope we don’t see patient’s privacy protections eroded in the name of a political battle.

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