FILLMORE — Domestic violence and mental health versus treatment and public safety is an issue a Utah sheriff is worried about balancing, all because of federal health privacy laws.
Millard County Sheriff Robert Dekker said a recent case involving a hospital allowed a wanted man with a violent history to get back onto the streets.
"We are not trying to make an enemy out of IHC (Intermountain Healthcare) or any other medical facility,” Dekker said. “We just want good relationships to take those who might be deemed dangerous, to put them where they can't hurt anybody."
Dekker said recent incidents of Utah hospitals invoking HIPAA privacy laws, when it comes to individuals being treated yet wanted by police, has him concerned.
Case in point: a standoff in Millard County on May 30. An armed man on parole fired a shot into a home and threatened to kill family members. After several hours, he surrendered to the SWAT team. With concerns about his mental stability and no treatment options in the small county jail, the sheriff had him admitted to Utah Valley Hospital's psychiatric ward in Provo. A warrant was issued by the Board of Pardons and sent to the hospital, so hospital staff knew after treatment the man faced arrest.
"The next thing we hear is the family is receiving threatening texts from this individual, so in other words he is out of the psychiatric unit. We hadn't been notified,” Dekker said.
Officials with Utah Valley Hospital in Provo declined to be interviewed, but in a written statement they said the staff follows federal guidelines that dictate what hospitals can and cannot tell law enforcement about any patient.
“Due to federal privacy laws, Utah Valley Hospital is unable to comment on this specific patient. However, federal law dictates what hospitals can and cannot tell law enforcement about any patient. If a patient is not in police custody, there are federal guidelines on what hospitals can and cannot share with law enforcement, and Utah Valley Hospital follows those guidelines," the statement reads.
Dekker believes public safety should carry more weight than the federal HIPAA privacy laws when it comes to a wanted man being treated in a mental health facility.
"We don't need the diagnosis, we don't need the medications, that kind of information will be shared between doctor to doctor as the patient allows it to happen. But we don't want them out on the street, endangering the public," he said.
Department of Corrections parole officers eventually tracked down the man, Michael Hathaway, in Duchesne County, who was found to be in possession of a knife. He was sent back to Utah State Prison on the warrant and faces new charges for the incident in Millard County.
The sheriff hopes this case will prompt a discussion among police and hospitals before someone wanted by police walks out of a hospital, only to carry out their threats, leading to a tragedy.
"There has to be a relationship between law enforcement and mental health — sometimes to work together, for the betterment of the individual, the patient, the suspect, whatever you want to call him, and the good of the public," Dekker added.