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Murphy Visits New Haven To Promote Mental Health Reform Bill

Katie Toth

In New Haven Wednesday, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut held a forum on a mental health reform bill that he’s cosponsoring. One part of the bill would change patient privacy law in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. Doctors would have clearer guidelines on when they can give families access to patients’ mental health information.

Right now, privacy law says that if a patient is incapacitated or does not object, medical professionals are allowed to share medical information with the patient's family when it's in his or her "best interest." But Murphy says some health professionals are confused about what that "best interest" entails. Some providers hesitate to share useful information with their patients' families, a Murphy spokesperson said, because they don't want to break the law.

The proposed bill says when medical health professionals decide whether to give families access to mental health information, they should consider whether sharing the information would lead to:

(1) Timely intervention for treatment of a serious mental or general medical illness. (2) Safe and stable housing for the individual. (3) Increased daily living skills that are likely to allow the individual to live within the community. (4) An increased capacity of caregivers to support the patient to live within the community.

Some at the forum were supportive of the proposed changes to the law, like Marjorie Sostak, from Groton. Her son is mentally ill and is currently in a juvenile detention center. She said her son tends to be confrontational when he's not lucid: "He will say no just to say no."

Sostak worries that without her son's medical records after he becomes 18, she will have few ways to be sure that he is safe.

"If he’s in a bad situation and he doesn’t have that clear ability -- I’m stuck," she said. "He’s stuck. I have to watch him deteriorate."

But Kathleen Flaherty, executive director of the Connecticut Legal Rights Project for people with mental health issues, was concerned about the change. Flaherty, who has bipolar disorder herself, said the bill was too optimistic about the role that families play in their patients' lives. When it comes to patient privacy, she said, doctors should err on the side of too much rather than too little. 

"Most of the time family members are incredibly helpful. But there are times when family is actually the cause of the trauma, is actually a cause of the problem," she said.  "It will hinder people getting care if they know the people who have been an issue for them are going to get information on everything that’s happening."

At the forum, Murphy said he respects patient privacy, but it's already legal for health professionals to share information with people's families in certain circumstances. He said the bill will also include funding for education, so doctors and mental health professionals better understand their responsibilities under federal privacy laws. 

Follow reporter Katie Toth on Twitter at @kat_toth. Email her at