(Reuters) – Mental health advocates are worried that the privacy of people who have received treatment for their illnesses could be jeopardized by a White House push to expand a database used to run background checks on gun buyers.
President Barack Obama said he wants to see state governments contribute more names of people barred from buying guns to the database, part of a sweeping set of executive actions he announced after a gunman killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December.
The database, called the National Instant Criminal Background Check System, or NICS, is used by gun dealers to check whether a potential buyer is prohibited from owning a gun.
States are encouraged to report to the database the names of people who are not allowed to buy guns because they have been involuntarily committed to a mental hospital, or have been found to have serious mental illnesses by courts.
Many states do not participate. So the administration is looking at changing a health privacy rule – part of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) – to remove one potential barrier.
The Health and Human Services Department has not released a detailed proposal outlining possible changes to HIPAA. When it asked for comments on the idea, it was flooded with more than 2,000 letters and e-mails.
Many of the comments were from gun rights advocates, but a surprising number were from mental health professionals and advocates.
Health care professionals are sympathetic to Obama’s goal of reducing gun violence, but worry that the privacy rule proposal could discourage people with mental illness from seeking treatment.
“I think it’s a bad idea. It would really put a chill on people getting services,” said Daniel Fisher, who was treated for schizophrenia decades ago, recovered, and became a well-known psychiatrist and mental health advocate in Massachusetts.
“They find it very scary, the idea of a national database that the government will keep,” Fisher said.
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