Maine State Senator Peter Mills

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Panel backs bill to warn relatives of mentally ill

By Susan M. Cover
Kennebec Journal / Morning Sentinel May 17, 2007

AUGUSTA -- Those who treat the mentally ill would have more leeway to tell family members about potential danger if a bill supported by the Judiciary Committee becomes law.

Sen. Peter Mills, R-Cornville, said he reworked his bill, Legislative Document 1119, to comply with federal health privacy regulations. That eased the concerns expressed by the state Office of Mental Health Services, which worried the original bill would clash with federal law.

"This isn't the law I would like to write," Mills said. "This is all I think we can write under federal regulations."

As revised, the bill would allow mental health professionals to "disclose such protected health information as he or she believes is necessary to avert a serious and imminent threat to health or safety when the disclosure is made in good faith to anyone, including a target of the threat, who is reasonably able to prevent or minimize the threat."

At a public hearing two weeks ago, Robert Bruce of Caratunk implored the committee to ease state law so family members of adults with mental illness can be better informed.

Bruce's son, William, killed Amy Bruce, William's mother, last year -- two months after he was released from Riverview Psychiatric Center in Augusta. Mills said the amended bill might not go far enough to protect people such as Amy Bruce because federal law requires that the danger be "serious and imminent."

Since two months had elapsed between the time William Bruce was released and the time of the slaying, mental health professionals may not have been able to warn the family, he said.

The committee discussed replacing "serious and imminent" with "serious or imminent" to allow for more disclosure.

But Mills said that wouldn't pass federal muster. "This will cover most situations where there's danger, but not all," he said. Robert Bruce could not be reached Wednesday for comment.

In written comments to the committee, Helen Bailey of the Disability Rights Center said the revised version of the bill is better than the original, but still raises concerns.

"It does, unfortunately, remain the case that a very high proportion of individuals with mental illness are victims of abuse, including by the individuals who would be able to obtain information through this section, perhaps placing the patient at risk," she wrote.

The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine supported the bill at the public hearing. Executive Director Carol Carothers said the group continues to do so.

Rather than hold up any changes to state law while waiting for federal input, the committee voted to pass the bill as amended by Mills. But some said they may direct the state Department of Health and Human Services to write a letter to the federal government seeking a waiver from the more strict federal requirements.

In voting to support the bill, Rep. Alan Casavant, D-Biddeford, said it may be necessary to try to change federal law.

"I was extremely touched by the family members affected by mental illness," he said.