Proposed HIPAA Rule to Enhance Criminal Background Check System

On January 7, the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) published a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to revise the HIPAA Privacy Rule expressly permitting certain covered entities to disclose specific information about individuals who are subject to the federal mental health prohibitor to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). HHS stated the purpose of this amendment is to help “strengthen the federal background check system to keep guns out of potentially dangerous hands” by removing legal barriers under HIPAA that may prevent reporting relevant information to the NICS.

The NICS is a national system used to conduct background checks on individuals who may be disqualified from purchasing or receiving firearms based on federally prohibited categories or state law. One such category is the federal “mental health prohibitor,” which includes individuals who have been (1) involuntarily committed to a mental institution; (2) found incompetent to stand trial or not guilty by reason of insanity; or (3) determined by a court, board, commission, or other lawful authority to be a danger to themselves or others or to lack the mental capacity to contract or manage their own affairs.

The proposed amendment would permit HIPAA covered entities that perform the commitments or adjudications that make individuals subject to the federal mental health prohibitor, or that act as repositories of NICS records on behalf of a state, to use and disclose certain information for NICS reporting purposes. These select covered entities would be permitted to disclose only  the “individual’s name; date of birth; sex; a code or notation indicating that the individual is subject to the Federal mental health prohibitor; a code or notation representing the reporting entity; and a code identifying the agency record supporting the prohibition.” Covered entities would not be permitted to disclose clinical or diagnostic information, medical records, or other identifiable health information. Covered entities could disclose the information directly to the NICS or to an entity designated by a state as a data repository for NICS reporting purposes.

Because the proposed rule focuses on covered entities that actually are responsible for ordering involuntary commitments or conducting adjudications, or that act as a designated repository of NICS records, it does not affect most treating providers or covered entities that only engage in treatment functions. Further, this modification would permit, not require, the specified covered entities to disclose information.  The proposed amendment would not include any additional notification requirements to individuals whose information was disclosed and would not require covered entities to change their notice of privacy practices.

HHS is seeking comments, which are due on March 10, on various issues addressed in the NPRM, including whether the permission should be broadened to include reporting on individuals subject to state firearms prohibitions and additional (non-clinical) identifying information.

For more information about the proposed rule or HIPAA in general, please contact Jefferson Lin.