Health IT

HIPAA rule change seeks more mental health data for background checks on gun buyers

A debate combining gun control, patient privacy and behavioral health is set to heat up again. A proposed rule change from the Department of Health and Human Services that would amend patient privacy protections under HIPAA is headed towards the Federal Register, according to an article in Health Data Management. The goal is to get states […]

A debate combining gun control, patient privacy and behavioral health is set to heat up again. A proposed rule change from the Department of Health and Human Services that would amend patient privacy protections under HIPAA is headed towards the Federal Register, according to an article in Health Data Management. The goal is to get states to submit more records of individuals prohibited from owning a gun for mental health reasons.

Its one of several executive and Congressional actions announced earlier this year by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The proposals followed the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 23 people dead, including 20 children, last year. Although the shooter did not purchase the guns himself, it reawakened the debate over bolstering gun control, background checks and behavioral health that began in earnest with the Virginia Tech shootings.

The reason for the proposal is that states are not providing much data for these instant background checks. The article cited a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office indicating that 17 states have submitted less than 10 records of individuals prohibited from owning a gun for mental health reasons.

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System uses several factors to prevent people from buying guns, including felons, convictions for domestic abuse, documented substance abuse problems and people with severe mental health disorders or ruled mentally incompetent.

Leon Rodriguez, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights tried to alleviate apprehension over the requirements earlier this year. He explained that no information detailing the gun buyer’s behavioral health background would be available to the person conducting the check. They would only see that the person was turned down. He added that the database that contains the behavioral health information does not include electronic health records.

“If an individual is prohibited from purchasing a firearm due to specific mental health reasons as set by law, the following information is submitted to the NICS: (1) basic identifying information about the individual such as name, social security number, and date of birth, (2) the name of the state or federal agency that submitted the information, and (3) a notation on which of the ten prohibited categories is applicable to the individual, which allows the individual to appeal and seek to correct incomplete or inaccurate information.

Several psychological and mental health associations and advocacy groups have come out against the proposal, according to iHealth Beat. They say that it stigmatizes people with mental health problems. They also expressed concern that it could make it less likely they would seek treatment.

Many psychiatrists who keep electronic medical records have opted to keep patients’ information and their own notes relating to their patients’ mental health separate from the rest of the medical records. That practice has sparked some debate over whether it undermines patient health. Despite privacy regulations there are instances where identifying data can be traced back to patient records.