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Navigating the Mental Health Crisis in Young Adults

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May 28, 2019

What Parents of College Students with Psychiatric Disorders Need to Know About HIPAA

HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, passed in 1996, governs medical insurance practices in the U.S. If your child is transitioning from one job to another, HIPAA ensures they do not lose health insurance coverage – so they can still receive care for their mental illness.

Another facet of HIPAA is its privacy rules, which combat discrimination against those with psychiatric disorders and other illnesses. Moreover, under HIPAA’s privacy rules, your college student is in charge of their own medical records (if they are 18 or over), so you will need to have a conversation with them about how much information they are willing to share with you about their mental health and other medical records.

What is HIPAA?

There are four titles within HIPAA that may directly affect the average college-aged patient. Title I ensures health plans do not reject individuals with pre-existing conditions such as bipolar disorder or depression. Title II outlines the requirements for transmission of health-related electronic files and the necessary safety measures insurance companies, hospitals and other medical companies are required to take with all patients. All medical care guidelines and tax-related issues are covered in Title III, while Title IV defines health insurance reform in detail, further explaining how your child cannot lose coverage because of a psychiatric disorder or any other health issue.

How HIPAA Applies to Parents and College Students

Your child’s name, address, social security number, physical/mental health condition, details about their care at health facilities and information regarding how they paid for medical services are all considered personal health information (PHI).

By law, the HIPAA privacy rule not only demands PHI records be kept safe and confidential, but it also allows your child to access their records at any time. Your child is allowed to determine who else views their records, so consider having a discussion with them about this, especially if you need to access their health records while they are away at college. If your child allows you access to their medical records after they turn 18, their doctor’s office should have a HIPAA authorization form for each individual parent to complete. You child can even choose exactly what information you see. If their health information is shared, your child can find out why as well.

Education records are not considered PHI under HIPAA. FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, grants parents access to educational records until children turn 18. If you are concerned about the impact your child’s psychiatric disorder will have on their grades, you will need to obtain a FERPA consent form. On-campus health centers and counseling centers are considered a part of the university and, as such, produce treatment records protected by FERPA rather than PHI under HIPAA. You may not need a FERPA consent form to access any treatment records if you still claim your child as a dependent on your taxes or if, at any time before your child turns 21, they are caught drinking underage or doing drugs.

At a time when your college student may encounter a great deal of stress, you might be concerned about the potential discrimination your child could face regarding their mental illness. HIPAA protects them against healthcare coverage discrimination, which allows you to rest easy knowing your child will not be denied continued coverage for therapy, medication or a stay at a therapeutic community if they require one.

Some parents are surprised to learn that once their child turns 18, that they no longer have a right to be informed about their child’s care, unless their child grants it. While there are some legal avenues that may provide some relief in some circumstances, it is important you keep the lines of communication open as your college student becomes more legally independent.

Note that most (but not all) mental health providers welcome your input, which can be especially valuable if your child is new to their care, and/or is in a new crisis. But listening to you creates no obligation on their part to share protected information back with you, unless your child has so authorized.

The ability to engage in important discussions about their mental health will improve their college experience and offer them long-term coping strategies knowing their parents are on their side.

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