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New Jersey to Suspend Prominent Psychologist for Failing to Protect Patient Privacy

[Editor's note: today's guest blog post, by reporters at ProPublica, explores privacy issues within the healthcare industry. The post is reprinted with permission.]

By Charles Ornstein, ProPublica

A prominent New Jersey psychologist is facing the suspension of his license after state officials concluded that he failed to keep details of mental health diagnoses and treatments confidential when he sued his patients over unpaid bills.

The state Board of Psychological Examiners last month upheld a decision by an administrative law judge that the psychologist, Barry Helfmann, “did not take reasonable measures to protect the confidentiality of his patients’ protected health information,” Lisa Coryell, a spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office, said in an e-mail.

The administrative law judge recommended that Helfmann pay a fine and a share of the investigative costs. The board went further, ordering that Helfmann’s license be suspended for two years, Coryell wrote. During the first year, he will not be able to practice; during the second, he can practice, but only under supervision. Helfmann also will have to pay a $10,000 civil penalty, take an ethics course and reimburse the state for some of its investigative costs. The suspension is scheduled to begin in September.

New Jersey began to investigate Helfmann after a ProPublica article published in The New York Times in December 2015 that described the lawsuits and the information they contained. The allegations involved Helfmann’s patients as well as those of his colleagues at Short Hills Associates in Clinical Psychology, a New Jersey practice where he has been the managing partner.

Helfmann is a leader in his field, serving as president of the American Group Psychotherapy Association, and as a past president of the New Jersey Psychological Association.

ProPublica identified 24 court cases filed by Short Hills Associates from 2010 to 2014 over unpaid bills in which patients’ names, diagnoses and treatments were listed in documents. The defendants included lawyers, business people and a manager at a nonprofit. In cases involving patients who were minors, the lawsuits included children’s names and diagnoses.

The information was subsequently redacted from court records after a patient counter-sued Helfmann and his partners, the psychology group and the practice’s debt collection lawyers. The patient’s lawsuit was settled.

Helfmann has denied wrongdoing, saying his former debt collection lawyers were responsible for attaching patients’ information to the lawsuits. His current lawyer, Scott Piekarsky, said he intends to file an immediate appeal before the discipline takes effect.

"The discipline imposed is ‘so disproportionate as to be shocking to one’s sense of fairness’ under New Jersey case law," Piekarsky said in a statement.

Piekarsky also noted that the administrative law judge who heard the case found no need for any license suspension and raised questions about the credibility of the patient who sued Helfmann. "We feel this is a political decision due to Dr. Helfmann’s aggressive stance" in litigation, he said.

Helfmann sued the state of New Jersey and Joan Gelber, a senior deputy attorney general, claiming that he was not provided due process and equal protection under the law. He and Short Hills Associates sued his prior debt collection firm for legal malpractice. Those cases have been dismissed, though Helfmann has appealed.

Helfmann and Short Hills Associates also are suing the patient who sued him, as well as the man’s lawyer, claiming the patient and lawyer violated a confidential settlement agreement by talking to a ProPublica reporter and sharing information with a lawyer for the New Jersey attorney general’s office without providing advance notice. In court pleadings, the patient and his lawyer maintain that they did not breach the agreement. Helfmann brought all three of these lawsuits in state court in Union County.

Throughout his career, Helfmann has been an advocate for patient privacy, helping to push a state law limiting the information an insurance company can seek from a psychologist to determine the medical necessity of treatment. He also was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against two insurance companies and a New Jersey state commission, accusing them of requiring psychologists to turn over their treatment notes in order to get paid.

"It is apparent that upholding the ethical standards of his profession was very important to him," Carol Cohen, the administrative law judge, wrote. "Having said that, it appears that in the case of the information released to his attorney and eventually put into court papers, the respondent did not use due diligence in being sure that confidential information was not released and his patients were protected."

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