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Subcommittee furthers examination of mental health system with look at federal privacy laws

On April 26, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Representative Tim Murphy, R-Penn., continued its post-Newtown examination of the nation's mental health system, focusing on the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act and how its application can help or hinder patient care and public safety. Members of the subcommittee expressed concern that the privacy rule may interfere with the timely and continuous flow of health information between health care providers, patients, and families, thereby impeding patient care, and in some cases, public safety.

"HIPAA, as initially conceived and enacted, reflected an effort to replace a patchwork of state laws and regulations impacting the confidentiality of medical information," Murphy said. "From the start, HIPAA was accompanied by considerable anxiety on the part of providers, or the 'covered entities'. Fearful of new penalties for violating HIPAA, doctors and nurses were refusing to even talk about a patient's illness with caregivers, all of whom were spouses, siblings, or those managing the affairs of an elderly parent.

"Our goal is to peel away the numerous layers of misinformation surrounding HIPAA so that we can ensure patients are getting the right treatment and the public is kept safe. Sometimes this may involve communication with the parents or family of a patient, who often possess unique insight into their loved one's condition. At other times, it involves communication with law enforcement, so providers take the right steps to report threats of violence."

At the hearing, Leon Rodriguez, director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services, explained the ways in which HIPAA allows health care providers to communicate with family, friends and caregivers about the condition, care, or general information of a patient. Following his testimony, three additional witnesses shared personal experiences, explaining how the HIPAA rule has made it almost impossible to care for their family members.

The Subcommittee plans to continue to examine the nation's mental health system and to then propose changes and reforms that can be initiated through legislative and/or regulatory actions. AAGP will continue to monitor these activities and will provide updates in this newsletter. more

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