Report Addresses Privacy and Mental Health Data Sharing
HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Wednesday issued a report to President Bush that included recommendations on how the education, mental health and law enforcement communities can share information about individuals with mental illnesses who could pose a danger to themselves and others in compliance with medical privacy laws, CQ HealthBeat reports (Reichard, CQ HealthBeat, 6/13).
Bush requested the report in April after a Virginia Tech student killed 32 classmates and faculty members before he killed himself.
For the 22-page report, HHS, the Department of Education and Department of Justice conducted hearings and met with experts in 12 states to discuss possible recommendations. The report recommends improved communication between teachers and mental health workers, more help for students with mental illnesses and improved training for campus police (Hutcheson, McClatchy/Lexington Herald-Leader, 6/14).
The report states, "Throughout our meetings and in every breakout session, we heard differing interpretations and confusion about legal restrictions on the ability to share information about a person who may be a threat to self or to others. In a number of discussions, participants reported circumstances in which they incorrectly believed that they were subject to liability or foreclosed from sharing information under federal law."
In remarks at the White House, Leavitt said, "We need to do a much better job educating educators, the mental health community and law enforcement that they can, in fact, share information when a person's safety or a community's safety is ... potentially endangered" (CQ HealthBeat, 6/13).
The report also recommends that schools develop procedures to inform students about ongoing emergencies.
Bush in a statement said that efforts to share information among the education, mental health and law enforcement communities "must improve."
Virginia Tech President Charles Steger said that, "based on my quick review, the report unearthed the deep complexities of the issues facing college campuses today." He added, "We believe that this will further inform the national and our state discussion on the nexus between societal safety and personal freedoms."
However, Michael Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said, "The president's task force is a disappointment. It repeats much of what we have known for years." Fitzpatrick added, "It talks about encouraging people to get help when they need it -- when the real problem is that help often is not available" (Jenkins, Washington Post, 6/14).
Ralph Ibson, vice president of government affairs at Mental Health America, said, "There is a screaming need for federal involvement in effective services. This isn't about coordinating. It's about putting something in the chasm that exists out there" (McClatchy/Lexington Herald-Leader, 6/14).
Others said that the report raises concerns about how to protect the medical privacy of individuals with mental illnesses but provide their family members with needed information.
Mary Zdanowicz, executive director of the Treatment Advocacy Center, said, "It's becoming a bigger and bigger issue" (Washington Post, 6/14). The report is available online.
"Clearly, the federal privacy laws, as well as state statutes that mirror them, need an exemption to allow medical records to be examined under certain conditions, such as the death of 32 individuals at the hands of an unbalanced person," a Nashua Telegraph editorial states.
"In the not so recent past, having a mental illness could result in a person being locked up for life and often forgotten," the editorial states, adding, "Those bad old days are over, but the pendulum seems to have swung so far in the opposite direction that getting information about an individual's medical record even after he's committed a mass murder is off limits."
The editorial concludes, "The pendulum badly needs some repositioning" (Nashua Telegraph, 6/13).