Privacy Protection Issues in Mental Health Records

Healthcare Training Resource
September 24, 2013 — 1,169 views  
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Privacy experts in America are a worried a lot these days. They are worried that privacy protection of mental health records could be compromised due to President Obama’s gun control agenda. Anyone referred to a mental institution will have their private records accessible to the federal government.

Federal and State Laws

The Federal protection of mental health records or health records is provided under the HIPAA privacy laws. These rules ensure the privacy protection under parts 160 combined with 164 of 45 CFR. While the individual gets strong legal protection, their access to treatment and quality of care is not restricted.

Privacy protection is applicable to covered entities including health providers and plans, and mental health care providers. All health information in any form including oral statements, paper and electronic are protected. Every state has laws protecting health including mental health records patterned on HIPAA. 

The state laws may however vary for the purpose of treatment without consent as far as authorization of disclosure of health records is concerned. Many state laws are more restrictive than HIPAA rules. According to HIPAA rules, the HIPAA clauses will prevail in the case of a state where privacy protection is less stringent; but in states with more restrictive laws, their laws will supersede the HIPAA law whenever a conflict may arise.  

Cause for Concern

According to the proposed changes in privacy protection of mental health records, the government will be given the details of any individual sent to a mental hospital, right away. The Plan proposed by the Obama administration includes a mandatory notification sent to Washington in case anyone is sent to a mental facility for any reason including “other reasons”.  This is the phrase that is rather broad and also vague, authorizing the DOJ with sweeping powers to prohibit anyone from the possession of firearms, which is a constitutional right. 

In other words, mental health records will no longer be protected which is a real concern and needs to be addressed as soon as possible. It could be disastrous to the cause of freedom and right to privacy granted to individuals in a democracy. The DOJ should clearly identify the formal commitments to debar ownership of gun before HHS amends regulations permitting release of mental health information.

Suggested Recommendations

Privacy protection being a fundamental right offered by the constitution should not be tampered with. Information from mental health records when passed into the wrong hands can be disastrous. Blackmailers, opponents in a lawsuit, and private detectives are the ones who could possibly derive benefits out of private information on health records. 

There are other ways to prohibit guns from reaching the wrong hands than infringing the privacy protection laws. Anyone wanting to purchase a gun should also declare their mental fitness to own the gun. This is an easier route than granting access to the database on mental health records.   

There are concerns that the persons seeking mental health treatment would be dissuaded from disclosing their information for the fear that it would eventually land into the government database. Mental health experts, on the contrary, are of the opinion that mental health patients are more likely to be the victims of crime than the other way round. 

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