Psychologist’s License Suspended for Failure to Protect Patients’ Mental Health Information

A New Jersey clinical psychologist has been ordered to pay fines, a portion of investigative costs, and have his license temporarily suspended for failure to protect his patients’ diagnosis and treatment details in legal filings.

An administrative law judge ordered the penalties against psychologist Barry Helfmann, resulting from a complaint filed by the New Jersey State Board of Psychological Examiners in 2017 after reporting by the New York Times and ProPublica exposed the wrongdoing in December 2015. As the Journal of AHIMA reported in 2017, the state board alleged that Helfmann did not adequately train staff on privacy procedures, failed to release requested patient information, and “repeatedly failed to protect the personal health information of his own clients.”

The original 2015 investigative report alleged that between 2010 and 2014, Short Hill Associates, the provider for which Helfmann is a managing partner, pursued legal action against 24 individuals for unpaid bills (sometimes the parents of child patients) and included the patients’ diagnoses and treatment information in publicly available court filings. ProPublica reported that patient information was redacted in subsequent legal proceedings, including one instance in which a patient sued Helfmann about the wrongful disclosure of his psychological records.

According to ProPublica, Helfmann claimed that his former debt collection lawyers were responsible for attaching patients’ information to the lawsuits, even though ProPublica analysis found multiple instances where providers like Helfmann have redacted such information in similar court cases.

After the complaint was filed in 2017, Helfmann sued the state of New Jersey and Joan Gelber, a senior deputy attorney general, claiming that he wasn’t granted due process and equal protection under the law. That lawsuit was later dismissed. Helfmann and Short Hill Associates also sued his prior debt collection firm for legal malpractice, a case which was also dismissed, but is being appealed, according to ProPublica. Additionally Helfmann and his practice are also suing the patient who sued him, as well as the man’s lawyer, claiming the patient and lawyer violated a confidential settlement agreement by talking to a reporter, the news organization reported.

“It is apparent that upholding the ethical standards of his profession was very important to him,” wrote Carol Cohen, the administrative law judge who ordered the penalties. “Having said that, it appears that in the case of the information released to his attorney and eventually put into court papers, the respondent did not use due diligence in being sure that confidential information was not released and his patients were protected.”

Cohen also ordered that Helfmann pay a $10,000 civil penalty and take an ethics course. During the first year of his license’s suspension, he will not be allowed to practice. During the second year he can only practice under supervision, according to ProPublica.

Mary Butler is the associate editor at Journal of AHIMA.

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