Psychologist Allegedly Disclosed Patients’ Mental Health PHI in Lawsuit Filings

A New Jersey clinical psychologist could lose his professional license due to multiple lawsuits and accusations that his practice inappropriately revealed patients’ mental health diagnoses in legal proceedings.

The New Jersey State Board of Psychological Examiners filed a complaint against the psychologist Barry Helfmann, who is the managing partner of a practice called Short Hill Associates in Clinical Psychology, following reporting by the New York Times and ProPublica in December of 2015. The Board’s complaint against Helfman alleges that he 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 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. One of the affected patients, a lawyer, countersued Short Hill Associates out of concern that legal adversaries would uncover his condition and use it in court, ProPublica reported. However, when this same attorney filed a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR), OCR closed its investigation because Short Hill Associates was not considered a HIPAA-covered entity because it doesn’t transmit claims electronically.

A ProPublica analysis found that when similar mental health professionals pursued unpaid debts, they redacted diagnosis and treatment information from legal documents to protect patient privacy, though there have been cases where the providers haven’t been so diligent.

In response to the allegations, Helfmann and his firm has filed a legal malpractice case against the law firm that filed the collections lawsuits on behalf of Short Hill Associates. Helfmann claims he did not know the law firm attached diagnosis and treatment information with their claims collection filings. Helfmann is also suing the New Jersey Board of Psychological Examiners, in addition to Joan D. Gelber, a senior deputy state attorney general.

“I’ve spent my entire career advocating for patient privacy in many, many endeavors,” Helfmann told ProPublica in an interview.  “And to be accused of something I didn’t do around patient privacy, which is a sacred tenet of what a psychologist does, is terrible.’’

Click here and here to read the full back story.

Mary Butler is the associate editor at The Journal of AHIMA.

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