HHS seeks to amend HIPAA to strengthen background checks

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Though a Senate bill to expand background checks on firearms sales was defeated last week, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services is examining how HIPAA regulations may keep states from reporting dangerous mental patients to a database used in background checks.

The HHS Office for Civil Rights has issued an advanced notice of proposed rulemaking that seeks public input on how the privacy regulations prevent reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background System (NICS). OCR is looking to address these barriers without discouraging mental health patients from seeking treatment, reports HealthcareInfoSecurity.com.

"In particular, we are considering creating an express permission in the HIPAA rules for reporting the relevant information to the NICS by those HIPAA-covered entities …" the notice says.

NICS is designed to keep guns out of the hands of felons, those involuntarily committed to a mental institution, those deemed a danger to themselves or others and those prohibited by law from possessing firearms.

However, a 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that 17 states had each submitted fewer than 10 reports based on mental health records, according to the notice.

"While this background check system is the most efficient and effective way to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous individuals, it is only as effective as the information that is available to it," HHS said in a statement.

It stressed that in background checks, NICS reports solely whether the would-be buyer should be approved or denied--no medical information is disclosed, according to The Hill's Healthwatch.

In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school shooting, physician professional societies and medical journals made pledges to put more time and effort into addressing mental illness and its link to gun violence.

In February, then-FierceHealthcare Editor Karen Cheung-Larivee dinged the president after his State of the Union address for mentioning "guns" eight times in support of stricter controls, but not focusing on mental health care as part of the solution.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, meanwhile, which has been at the forefront of providing remote mental health services, was criticized along with the U.S. Department of Defense last month in an Institute of Medicine report for failing to integrate their systems and failing to track the effectiveness of their mental health interventions.

To learn more:
- find the notice (.pdf)
- check out the statement
- read the HealthcareInfoSecurity.com article
- find The Hill's Healthwatch piece

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