Prominent New Jersey psychologist Dr. Barry Helfmann, president elect of the American Group Psychotherapy Association and former president of the New Jersey Psychological Association, has been accused of failing to prevent details of his patients’ mental health diagnoses and treatments from being released when his practice sued them for their unpaid medical bills. Dr. Helfmann has long been a leader in advocating for privacy and was a primary advocate for a New Jersey law limiting the information an insurance company can receive from a psychologist to determine medical necessity of a proposed treatment option. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) limits the disclosure of a patient’s personal information, and requires that only minimal information is released in cases seeking remedies for past nonpayment.
There have been 24 incidents identified in which Dr. Helfmann took legal action between 2010 and 2014 and the patients’ names, diagnoses and treatments received were improperly disclosed. The defendants include attorneys and businessmen and women. The parents of patients who were minors received notices of Short Hills Associates’ and Dr. Helfmann’s intent to sue. One patient filed a suit against Dr. Helfmann separately alleging improper disclosure of his information and the lawsuit was settled. The terms of the settlement are confidential.
The HIPAA violation complaint was filed by the State of New Jersey’s attorney general’s office on April 7th with the New Jersey State Board of Psychological Examiners and claims that Dr. Helfmann failed to consider patient confidentiality with regard to disclosure of patient records and notes kept in their files. The complaint also alleges that Helfmann failed to supervise his office staff and advise on matters related to patient confidentiality, failed to keep proper notes regarding client visits and failed to release records requested by patients. It specifically states Dr. Helfmann “repeatedly failed to protect the personal health information of his own clients”, as well as those under the care of his colleagues at Short Hills Associates in Clinical Psychology. Dr. Helfmann is the managing partner of the practice.
Dr. Helfmann stated he planned to contest the HIPAA violation complaint, claiming he had relied upon the expertise of his attorneys in pursuing delinquent payments. He has filed a legal malpractice suit against the firm he utilized, Rothbard, Rothbard, Kohn & Kellar. “We never authorized, we were never aware, nor would we have authorized the fact that they appended a copy of the bill to the lawsuit,” Dr. Helfmann said. “We were completely in the dark.” The lawyers deny any wrongdoing on their part. Dr. Helfmann has also filed a lawsuit against the state psychology board and senior deputy state attorney general Joan D. Gelber claiming they violated the doctor’s rights. Dr. Helfmann alleges that Gelber misrepresented her inquiry into the matter and used inappropriate language in legal documents. He sent the state psychology board a letter from senior special counsel for legal and regulatory affairs at the American Psychological Association, Alan Nessman, which stated “We generally recommend that our member psychologists rely on the advice of counsel in their state with appropriate expertise, particularly when the legal issues are complex”, alluding to the fact that psychologists themselves are not legal experts. Dr. Helfmann claims his reputation has suffered as a result of the litigation.