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Posts Tagged ‘Psychotherapy notes’

Mental Health Center Settlement for Failure to Provide Patient Record Copies

Tuesday, February 20th, 2018

OCR Sanction for Failing to Provide Patient Access to Protected Health Information

OCR Settlements Illustrate Area of HIPAA Risk

Access to Medical RecordsIn this case that was settled with the Office of Civil rights, the provider was a mental health center that was accused of refusing to provide a patient with a copy of her medical record, including psychotherapy notes. OCR’s investigation revealed that the Center provided the complainant with an opportunity to review her medical record, including the psychotherapy notes, with her therapist.  However, the provider failed to provide the patient with a copy of her records. The Privacy Rule requires covered entities to provide individuals with access to their medical records; however, the Privacy Rule exempts psychotherapy notes from this requirement if they are separately maintained by the covered entity. Although the Center gave the complainant the opportunity to review her medical record, this did not negate the Center’s obligation to provide the complainant with a copy of her records. Among other corrective action taken, the Center provided the complainant with a copy of her medical record and revised its policies and procedures to ensure that it provides timely access to all individuals.

The regulations under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA), which protect the privacy and security of individuals’ identifiable health information and establish an array of individual rights with respect to health information, have always recognized the importance of providing individuals with the ability to access and obtain a copy of their health information. With limited exceptions, the HIPAA Privacy Rule (the Privacy Rule) provides individuals with a legal, enforceable right to see and receive copies upon request of the information in their medical and other health records maintained by their health care providers and health plans.  Thus, individuals have a right to a broad array of health information about themselves maintained by or for covered entities, including: medical records; billing and payment records; insurance information; clinical laboratory test results; medical images, such as X-rays; wellness and disease management program files; and clinical case notes; among other information used to make decisions about individuals. In responding to a request for access, a covered entity is not, however, required to create new information, such as explanatory materials or analyses, that does not already exist in the designated record set.

An individual does not have a right to access PHI that is not part of a designated record set because the information is not used to make decisions about individuals. This may include certain quality assessment or improvement records, patient safety activity records, or business planning, development, and management records that are used for business decisions more generally rather than to make decisions about individuals.

In addition, two categories of information are expressly excluded from the right of access:

  1. Psychotherapy notes, which are the personal notes of a mental health care provider documenting or analyzing the contents of a counseling session, that are maintained separate from the rest of the patient’s medical record. See 45 CFR 164.524(a)(1)(i) and 164.501.
  2. Information compiled in reasonable anticipation of, or for use in, a civil, criminal, or administrative action or proceeding. See 45 CFR 164.524(a)(1)(ii).

Don’t Overlook Special Status of Behavioral Health Records

Monday, January 9th, 2017

Most health care providers have implemented HIPAA compliant policies and procedures and have made them operational.  We often see providers who have not given appropriate levels of thought to behavioral health records.  HIPAA and state laws generally provide different levels of protection for patient information that relates to mental health issues or alcohol and drug treatment.  This requires providers to have policies and procedures in place that help employees identify these types of records and which describes appropriate precautions and special rules that apply.

Generally, Federal law treats general mental health records in the same way it treats other types of health information.  Many state statutes require more protection over confidentiality of mental health records than general health information.  Further distinction is made between general mental health/behavioral health records and the subset of those records that include psychotherapy notes.   Psychotherapy notes are rarely subject to disclosure to third parties.  In many cases even the subject patient can be denied access to psychotherapy notes.

It is important that policies and procedures clearly define mental health records and psychotherapy notes and describe the special restrictions that are applicable to both.  Clearly, the special restrictions on psychotherapy notes must be honored.  It is also important that healthcare providers do not apply the broader restrictions that are applicable psychotherapy notes to more general mental health records. Failing to understand the distinction between the various types of records can have adverse consequences under applicable laws and can even put patient care at risk.

This issue is further complicated because State and Federal protections can be different and even conflicting.  This requires providers to perform a preemption analysis to determine which law to follow.  That analysis can be different depending on the type of record involved and the purpose and nature of the contemplated release.

Psychotherapy notes are given special treatment under Federal law.  Psychotherapy notes are defined under Federal law as notes recorded by a health care provider who is a mental health professional documenting or analyzing the contents of a conversation during a private counseling session or a group, joint, or family counseling session and that are separate from the rest of the patient’s medical record.  Psychotherapy notes can rarely be released to a third party and often even the patient can be denied access to these records.  Certain information is not included within the definition of psychotherapy notes such as medical prescriptions, session start and stop times, frequency of treatment, results of clinical tests, summaries of diagnosis, symptoms, prognosis, etc.  This information is considered to be mental health records but does not receive the same special protection as psychotherapy notes.

Organizations should read and understand the distinction between general mental health records and psychotherapy notes.  Separation is key to complying with restrictions that are applicable to psychotherapy notes.  Psychotherapy notes should be stored separately from the patient’s medical records (which includes behavioral and mental health records).

Organizations that use electronic medical records (EMR) system must devise ways to separate psychotherapy notes from other types of medical records.  This might include integration of special naming and filing standards into the electronic record. Staff training is required to assure that the differences between psychotherapy notes and mental health records is maintained.

Some state laws complicate the analysis even further by provided additional restrictions on general mental health records.  Depending on your state, this analysis can become quite complicated and dependent on the purpose and nature of the contemplated release, application of preemption rules, and interpretation of state and Federal statutes and regulations.

John H. Fisher

Health Care Counsel
Ruder Ware, L.L.S.C.
500 First Street, Suite 8000
P.O. Box 8050
Wausau, WI 54402-8050

Tel 715.845.4336
Fax 715.845.2718

Ruder Ware is a member of Meritas Law Firms Worldwide

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