On Jan. 4, HHS released a final rule(federalregister.gov) that modifies the existing HIPAA Privacy Rule to clarify that it is not a privacy violation to report certain information to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS).
According to an HHS blog(www.hhs.gov) posted the same day by Jocelyn Samuels, director of the Office for Civil Rights, the change permits "certain covered entities" to disclose to NICS the identities of individuals who, for specific mental health reasons, already were prohibited by federal law from possessing a firearm.
"The information that can be disclosed is the minimum necessary identifying information about individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a mental institution or otherwise have been determined by a lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others, or to lack the mental capacity to manage their own affairs," wrote Samuels.
Importantly, the rule does not apply to most health care professionals and does not allow diagnostic, clinical or other mental health treatment information to be reported.
According to Samuels, the modification "better enables the reporting of the identities of these individuals to the background check system" and at the same time protects individuals' privacy. Moreover, the final rule gives states more flexibility to ensure that information reported to NICS is limited but accurate and is not a violation of HIPAA privacy standards.
Furthermore, Samuels made it clear that the modified rule does not automatically preclude individuals who seek help for mental health conditions -- or who receive mental health services -- from owning a firearm.
The final rule was first proposed in April 2013 and won the support of the AAFP. In a June 2013 letter(1 page PDF) to (then) HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius signed by the AAFP and five other medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the groups stated their appreciation of HHS' efforts to find ways to "address the HIPAA barrier to NICS reporting without discouraging individuals seeking needed mental health services."
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