Virginia Senator Calls for Easing of HIPAA Privacy Rules

On Tuesday, a House panel heard Virginia state senator, Creigh Deeds, testify ahead of a meeting to discuss the re-introduced Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act.

Rep. Tim Murphy & Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson have re-introduced the bill which, in part, calls for the easing of HIPAA privacy protections under certain circumstances. The representatives’ cause has received backing from Deeds, who is also calling for exceptions to be made to HIPAA Privacy Rules.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) severely restricts the disclosure of Protected Health Information (PHI). The Privacy Rules act in the interests of the patient, but it is argued that for mental health issues there must be more exceptions. Current restrictions on the disclosure of information can prevent patients from receiving the care they need.

Proponents of the new bill argue that mental health issues such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia do not fit the norm, and privacy rules must be applied differently. In some cases, withholding important medical information – such as diagnoses – prevents all members of the care team from providing a patient with the support he or she needs.

Creigh Deeds knows better than most how the current rules are failing patients. He has firsthand experience of the harm that can be caused by withholding important health information.

In November 2013, Creigh Deeds was stabbed in the face and torso by his son, who had suffered from “delusional thinking and sporadic behavior” for a number of years. Creigh’s son, Gus, had received an order for involuntary commitment for his own protection but he was released as there was no hospital that could house him. The attack took place shortly after he returned home. Gus took his own life after the attack.

The senator told the committee “Even though I was the one who cared for him, fed him, housed him, transported him, insured him, I was not privy to any information that could clarify for me his behaviors, his treatment plan, and symptoms to be vigilant about.” The senator feels that information should have been disclosed to him, being the main care provider.

“HIPAA prevented me from accessing the information I needed to keep him safe and help him towards recovery,” he said. “I didn’t know his diagnosis, his prescription changes and necessary follow up.”

This tragic event highlights the need for amendments to privacy rules; but not everyone shares the same point of view. Opponents of the bill argue that privacy and confidentiality are critical to the treatment of patients with mental health problems.

Some fear that if the bill is passed, many patients suffering from mental illness may be discouraged from receiving treatment if they think that their condition can be disclosed to third parties without their permission.

Author: Steve Alder has many years of experience as a journalist, and comes from a background in market research. He is a specialist on legal and regulatory affairs, and has several years of experience writing about HIPAA. Steve holds a B.Sc. from the University of Liverpool.