June 15, 2013
Privacy experts are warning of a strategy embedded inside a federal plan to adjust privacy rules so that the federal government can access Americans’ mental health records as part of Barack Obama’s war on gun ownership.
According to the plan, the government would be told the details right away if anyone is sent to a mental institution for “mental defectiveness, or mental illness.”
But the White House plan also includes a notification to Washington should someone be lodged in a mental facility “for other reasons.”
“The phrase ‘for other reasons’ is overly broad and vague,” said the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “Although the DOJ has illustrated that drug use is an example of ‘commitments for other reasons,’ the nebulous language would grant the DOJ sweeping authority to prohibit individuals from possessing firearms, a constitutionally protected right.”
The organization says the concern over the privacy of such records means nothing should be changed right away.
“Until the DOJ clearly defines and enumerates the types of formal commitments that can bar gun ownership, HHS should not amend its regulations to release sensitive mental health information to the DOJ,” the organization said in a submission commenting on the Obama plan.
The issue erupted after the school shooting at Sandy Hook six months ago. In response, the Obama administration launched an agenda that includes “closing background check loopholes to keep guns out of dangerous hands,” a ban on “military-style” weapons and some ammunition magazines, as well as “making schools safer” and improving mental health services.
But the vague generalities used to describe the plans have privacy experts and Second Amendment supporters worried.
The Department of Justice now wants to be notified of any mental health concerns and commitments “for other reasons” for Americans so their names can be added to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System list of people banned from owning guns.
But it appears the requirements of the privacy rule for medical records will be a barrier to that quick transfer of personal details, so the Department of Health and Human Services has proposed a change.
“Concerns have been raised that, in certain states, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule may be a barrier to states’ reporting the identities of individuals subject to the mental health prohibitor in the NICS,” according to a strategy outlined in the Federal Register.
So, HHS said, it is planning to create “an express permission in the HIPAA rules for reporting the relevant information to the NICS by those HIPAA covered entities responsible for involuntary commitments or the formal adjudications that would subject individuals to the mental health prohibitor, or that are otherwise designated by the states to report to the NICS.”