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HIPAA Clarifications Coming for Mental Health Workers

HIPAA Clarifications Coming for Mental Health Workers

If you work in the mental health area, you can expect there to be a coming clarification on how HIPAA and FERPA should be interpreted along with a other state and federal privacy laws dealing mostly with situations concerning mental health workers when dealing with patients in conjunction with educations and law enforcement. This change is largely in part to the misinterpretations of privacy laws that were contributed to the Virginia Tech shootings earlier this spring, however it was not attributed to the laws themselves, concluded federal officials in a report to the President.

The report was a compilation of data that was put together by several different agencies including The Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, and the Department of Justice that all made the report after interviewing mental health professionals, educators, and law enforcement officials around the country. In part the report states, “Critical information sharing faces substantial obstacles, education officials, health care providers, law enforcement personnel, and others are not fully informed about when they can share critical information on persons who are likely to be a danger to self or others, and the resulting confusion may chill legitimate information sharing.”

In particular, the report addressed how three bodies of law influenced the actions of people who taught and treated Seung Hui Cho in the months before the shootings: 1) the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), 2) the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (Ferpa), and 3) state laws and regs. The report noted that many state laws and regs are restrict information sharing more rigorously than federal laws. Mental health professionals routinely consider these laws when deciding whether to share information in order to protect a patient or those he might harm.

The problem that presented was this : “In some sessions, there were concerns and confusion about the potential liability of teachers, administrators, or institutions that could arise from sharing information, or not sharing information, under privacy laws, as well as laws designed to protect individuals from discrimination on the basis of mental illness.” But it was confusion about the laws, and not the laws themselves, that create the “information silos” that mental health professionals and educators sometimes create, the report argues.

Through this report a solution to help prevent tragic situations such as this was found. The report recommends the development of tools that help providers and educators assess the safety risk and identify instances where protection trumps privacy. Educators, law enforcement officials, and mental health professionals at Virginia Tech could have taken these actions before the shootings without breaking any laws.

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