On January 4, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) modified the HIPAA Privacy Rule to expressly permit certain covered entities to disclose to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) the identities of those individuals who, for mental health reasons, already are prohibited by Federal law from having a firearm. According to HHS, “This modification better enables the reporting of the identities of prohibited individuals to the background check system and is an important step toward improving the public’s safety while continuing to strongly protect individuals’ privacy interests.”
The information that can be disclosed is the limited identifying information about individuals 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 – that is, only about those who are covered under the pre-existing mental health prohibitor.” This rule applies to the subset of HIPAA covered entities that either make the mental health determinations that disqualify individuals from having a firearm or are designated by their States to report this information to NICS.
The new HIPAA regulatory language, published in the January 6, 2016 Federal Register, is as follows:
164.512 Uses and disclosures for which an authorization or opportunity to agree or object is not required.
* * * * *
(k) * * *
(7) National Instant Criminal Background Check System. A covered entity may use or disclose protected health information for purposes of reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System the identity of an individual who is prohibited from possessing a firearm under 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4), provided the covered entity:
(i) Is a State agency or other entity that is, or contains an entity that is:
(A) An entity designated by the State to report, or which collects information for purposes of reporting, on behalf of the State, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; or
(B) A court, board, commission, or other lawful authority that makes the commitment or adjudication that causes an individual to become subject to 18 U.S.C. 922(g)(4); and
(ii) Discloses the information only to:
(A) The National Instant Criminal Background Check System; or
(B) An entity designated by the State to report, or which collects information for purposes of reporting, on behalf of the State, to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; and
(iii)(A) Discloses only the limited demographic and certain other information needed for purposes of reporting to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System; and
(B) Does not disclose diagnostic or clinical information for such purposes.