Clarity Provided on Privacy Rule as Result of Braley Efforts Following Tragic Death of Coach Ed Thomas

Feb 25, 2014

After long effort from congressman, Health and Human Services issues HIPAA guidance on sharing information with law enforcement

Washington, D.C. – After Rep. Bruce Braley’s (IA-01) long effort seeking clarity on a law pertaining to privacy and public safety, the Health and Human Services Agency (HHS) has issued new guidance clarifying what healthcare providers can disclose in order to protect health and public safety while ensuring that a patient’s privacy is protected.

This clarification from HHS comes nearly five years after the murder of the late Aplington-Parkersburg High School football coach Ed Thomas. In that case, pertinent information about the perpetrator was not shared between a hospital where he had received treatment and local law enforcement.

“It’s tragic that we’re just now getting clarity on this issue—but I pray that these guidelines and better communication between hospitals and law enforcement can save lives in the future,” Braley said. “I firmly believe that we can protect medical privacy and public safety at the same time and will continue my work to strengthen both.”

In June 2009, Ed Thomas, longtime football coach at Aplington-Parkersburg High School in Parkersburg, Iowa, was fatally shot by Mark Becker, a mentally ill former football player. Becker had been released from a Waterloo, Iowa, hospital less than 24-hours prior to the shooting.

Last year, Jan Thomas, wife of coach Ed Thomas, joined Braley to testify before a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations hearing on gun violence and mental health.

Following Ms. Thomas’s testimony, Rep. Braley sent a letter to HHS asking for clarification on whether the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy rules interfere with the timely and continuous flow of health information between health care providers, patients, and families, and whether these rules can impede patient care and put public safety at risk. The guidance released today is a result of Braley’s letter.

HHS has also taken previous action as a result of Braley’s letter. In September 2013, HHS released a pocketbook guide to help both law enforcement and health care providers understand when and to what extent the HIPAA privacy rules permit providers to disclose information about an individual to law enforcement. The guide is designed to inform law enforcement on specific instances when they can disclose protected health information to the public in the name of public safety.

On the first anniversary of the shooting Braley introduced the Ed Thomas Act, which sought to clarify that existing HIPAA privacy requirements allow law enforcement agencies and medical providers to communicate more effectively when patients pose an inherent risk to the community.

As a result of this incident, Iowa passed a law requiring hospitals to notify law enforcement prior to discharge of a patient brought to a hospital for emergency mental health treatment by a law enforcement agency if an arrest warrant had been issued or charges were pending.

The new guidelines issued by HHS are available online HERE.

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