HIPAA: HHS Issues Letter on Disclosures to Avert Threats to Health or Safety

Members | January 16, 2013

In light of the shootings in Newtown, CT, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a letter to all health care providers reminding them that they have the ability, under the regulations that implement the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule at 45 C.F.R. Section 154.512(j), to take action, consistent with their ethical standards or other legal obligations, to disclose necessary information about a patient to law enforcement, family members of the patient, or other persons, when they believe the patient presents a serious danger to himself or others.

In light of the shootings in Newtown, CT, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) within
the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has issued a letter to all health
care providers reminding them that they have the ability, under the regulations
that implement the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA)
Privacy Rule at 45 C.F.R. Section 154.512(j), to: 

  • Take action, consistent with
    their ethical standards or other legal obligations.
  • Disclose necessary
    information about a patient to law enforcement, family members of the patient,
    or other persons, when they believe the patient presents a serious danger to
    himself or others. 

The letter notes that in addition to professional ethical standards, most states have laws and/or
court decisions which address, and in many instances require, disclosure of
patient information to prevent or lessen the risk of harm. 

OCR advises providers
to consult the laws applicable to their profession in the states where they
practice, as well as 42 CFR Part 2 under federal law (governing the disclosure
of substance abuse treatment records) to understand their duties and authority
in situations where they have information indicating a threat to public safety.