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HIPAA Privacy Rule and the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS)

On January 4, 2016, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) moved forward on the Administration’s commitment to modify the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (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.

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 final rule gives States improved flexibility to ensure accurate but limited information is reported to the NICS.  This rulemaking makes clear that, under the Privacy Rule, certain covered entities are permitted to disclose limited information to the NICS.  The information that can be disclosed is the minimum necessary 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.

The new modification is carefully and narrowly tailored to preserve the patient-provider relationship and ensure that individuals are not discouraged from seeking voluntary treatment. This rule applies only to a small 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 – and it allows such entities to report only limited identifying, non-clinical information to the NICS. The rule does not apply to most treating providers and does not allow reporting of diagnostic, clinical, or other mental health treatment information. 

It is important to note that the vast majority of Americans with mental health conditions are not violent and that those with mental illness are in fact more likely to be victims than perpetrators.  An individual who seeks help for mental health problems or receives mental health treatment is not automatically legally prohibited from having a firearm; nothing in this final rule changes that.  HHS continues to support efforts by the Administration to dispel negative attitudes and misconceptions relating to mental illness and to encourage individuals to seek voluntary mental health treatment.  Learn more about mental health resources and recovery at http://www.mentalhealth.gov.

The Final Rule is available for review at: http://www.federalregister.gov  

Content created by Office for Civil Rights (OCR)
Content last reviewed on January 6, 2014
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