New HIPAA Rule Allows Mental Health Reporting to Federal Firearm Background Check System

by Matthew J. Effken

The Department of Health and Human Services is relaxing Privacy Rule provisions of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) to allow some covered entities to notify the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) about individuals who are prohibited from having a firearm for mental health reasons.  The NICS is a national database maintained by the FBI and used to conduct background checks for gun purchases.  Under the new rule, the only information that can be reported is the minimum necessary to identify persons 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.

The new rule applies only to those HIPAA covered entities with lawful authority to make mental health determinations that disqualify an individual from having a firearm, or are designated NICS reporting entities under state law.  The only information that can be reported is limited identifying information, not diagnostic or clinical information.  The new rule does not apply to most treating providers.  The rule will primarily impact state agencies, boards and commissions outside the court system in states that do not already require that such information be provided to the NICS.

The new rule is effective February 5, 2016.  The text of the rule is available at       https://federalregister.gov/a/2015-33181.

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