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Department of Health and Human Services Issues Letter to Providers on Disclosures to Avert Threats to Health or Safety

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a letter to health care providers to ensure that they are aware of their ability under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule to take action, consistent with their ethical standards or other legal obligations, to disclose necessary information about a patient to law enforcement, family members of the patient, or other persons, when they believe the patient presents a serious danger to himself or other people.

In the letter, HHS describes the HIPPA Privacy Rule as requiring a careful balance between protecting the patients’ privacy and ensuring the safety of the patient and others. In general, the Privacy Rule requires providers to protect the privacy of the patients’ health information. However, an exception is created when a health care provider believes in good faith that a warning is necessary to prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the patient or others. A provider is presumed to have a good faith belief if his or her belief is based on the provider’s actual knowledge, such as through the provider’s interactions with the patient, or when the provider is relying on a credible representation by a person with apparent knowledge or authority, such as a credible family member of the patient.

If a health care provider does believe in good faith that a warning is necessary to prevent a serious and imminent threat to the health or safety of the patient or others, then the Privacy Rule allows the provider to alert those persons whom the provider believes are reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat. In alerting such persons, the provider may disclose patient information, including information from mental health records, if necessary. Furthermore, persons “reasonably able to prevent or lessen the threat” may include police officers, the patient’s family members, or even campus security or administration.

In addition to the HIPPA Privacy Rule, many states have specific rules regarding disclosure of patient information. If you need assistance in understanding the HIPPA Privacy Rule and its exceptions, or state specific health care regulations, please contact an experienced health care attorney at Wachler & Associates attorney at 248-544-0888.