New Jersey psychology practice revealed patients' mental disorders in debt lawsuits

Source: PhillyVoice/ProPublica
When a New Jersey lawyer named Philip received legal papers last year informing him that his former psychologist’s practice was suing him over an unpaid bill, he was initially upset they could not work out a payment arrangement outside of court.
It was only later…that he scanned the papers again and realized…(that)…Short Hills Associates…the psychology group to which he’d confided his innermost feelings…had included his mental health diagnosis and treatments he received in publicly filed court documents…Philip, who requested his last name not be used to protect his privacy, said he felt “betrayed” by his psychologist…
The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), allows health providers to sue patients over unpaid debts, but requires that they disclose only the minimum information necessary to pursue them. Still, the law has many loopholes. One is that HIPAA covers only providers who submit data electronically – and apparently Short Hills Associates does not. Doctors who still rely on paper records and paper bills – or clients who pay cash – are not subject to the law….
Some mental health practitioners expressed outrage that Short Hills Associates had revealed patients’ private information as part of suing them for payment. “That’s just horrendous,” said Deborah Peel, a Texas psychiatrist who is founder and chair of Patient Privacy Rights, a group that advocates for patient privacy. “I have never heard of anything that bad and I’ve been practicing for like 40 years.”
Alan Nessman, the senior special counsel of the American Psychological Association, said…the organization would typically recommend against including patients’ diagnoses and a list of procedures as part of collection suits because it “may be more than the minimum disclosure necessary to obtain payment” under HIPAA and the group’s ethics code.
In November 2014…Philip’s lawyer, obtained a judge’s order directing that the bill detailing his diagnosis and treatment codes be replaced with a document in which that information was redacted. Nevertheless, a spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Consumer Affairs said the inclusion of diagnostic codes in lawsuits did not violate any regulations or statutes for the State Board of Psychological Examiners.

Philip’s lawyer…said he was particularly concerned about minors whose patient information was exposed. “When they’re grown up, want to get a job with the FBI or the U.S. attorney’s office, they conduct very thorough background checks…It could be used to prevent someone from getting a job one day.”

Philip filed a complaint in March with the Office for Civil Rights of the federal Department of Health and Human Services, the agency that enforces HIPAA. It included details on his case and others. In August, the agency wrote back to say it was “closing this complaint with no further action.”
A spokeswoman for the office said the agency “closed this case because we determined that Short Hills Associates…is not a HIPAA-covered entity, and therefore we have no jurisdiction to investigate or take any action on the complaint.”

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