Wednesday, January 6, 2016

New Gun Control Rule Eases Sharing of Mental Health Data

On Monday, HHS finalized a rule allowing certain health care providers to disclose -- without consent -- the names of patients with mental health issues to the FBI's firearms background check database, Politico reports (Pittman, Politico, 1/4).

Background

The National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, launched in 1998 and is used by gun dealers to ensure they are not selling weapons to individuals who are prohibited from owning firearms, such as individuals with severe mental health issues and those convicted of felonies (iHealthBeat, 5/23/14).
Such individuals are prohibited from purchasing firearms under the 1993 Brady law, which also prohibits individuals who have been involuntarily committed to a mental health facility, found incompetent to stand trial or deemed to be a danger to themselves from owning guns.
However, federal health care privacy rules had prohibited providers from sharing mental health information without the consent of patients (Politico, 1/4).
Meanwhile, many states have declined to release certain information to the NICS, citing prohibitions under HIPAA, despite the law's allowance to disclose data when it is required by law.
In September 2013, HHS' Office for Civil Rights sent a proposed rule to the Office of Management and Budget that would ease legal barriers under HIPAA that prevent some states from reporting certain medical data to the database (iHealthBeat, 5/23/14).

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Final Rule Details

The final rule modifies HIPAA to allow certain covered entities to disclose to the NICS the names of individuals who are barred from owning a firearm for mental health reasons (Slabodkin, Health Data Management, 1/5).
According to The Hill, the rule clarifies that only limited information would be disclosed, such as:
  • A patient's name; and
  • The submitting entity.
The rule states, "Underlying diagnoses, treatment records and other identifiable health information are not provided to or maintained by the NICS" (Ferris, The Hill, 1/4).
Further, the final rule removes the threat of legal repercussions against eligible health providers for disclosing information to the database.
According to Politico, the rule is scheduled to take effect in February (Politico, 1/4).

Obama Admin Unveils Executive Actions on Gun Control

Meanwhile, the White House also unveiled several gun control-related executive actions.
Among other things, the changes target online merchants, who often avoid conducting background checks on their clients despite the high volume of online sales.
Attorney General Loretta Lynch (D) said, "Right now it's really an Internet loophole," adding, "Gun sales are moving online" (Shear/Lichtblau, New York Times, 1/4).
The executive actions clarify that online firearms merchants must obtain a license, just like their brick-and-mortar counterparts. Further, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives created an Internet Investigations Center to track illegal online trafficking of firearms.
The executive actions also include proposals to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the background check system (White House release, 1/5).