Does HIPAA permit health care providers to share protected health information (PHI) about an individual with mental illness with a third party that is not a health care provider for continuity of care purposes? For example, can a health care provider refer a homeless patient to a social services agency, such as a housing provider, when doing so may reveal that the basis for eligibility is related to mental health?
HIPAA, with few exceptions, treats all health information, including mental health information, the same. HIPAA allows health care providers to disclose protected health information (PHI), including mental health information, to other public or private-sector entities providing social services (such as housing, income support, job training) in specified circumstances. For example:
- A health care provider may disclose a patient’s PHI for treatment purposes without having to obtain the authorization of the individual. Treatment includes the coordination or management of health care by a health care provider with a third party. Health care means care, services, or supplies related to the health of an individual. Thus, health care providers who believe that disclosures to certain social service entities are a necessary component of, or may help further, the individual’s health or mental health care may disclose the minimum necessary PHI to such entities without the individual’s authorization. For example, a provider may disclose PHI about a patient needing mental health care supportive housing to a service agency that arranges such services for individuals.
- A covered entity may also disclose PHI to such entities pursuant to an authorization signed by the individual. HIPAA permits authorizations that refer to a class of persons who may receive or use the PHI. Thus, providers could in one authorization identify a broad range of social services entities that may receive the PHI if the individual agrees. For example, an authorization could indicate that PHI will be disclosed to “social services providers” for purposes of “supportive housing, public benefits, counseling, and job readiness.”