Iowa licensing board loses legal fight over subpoenaed patient records

By: - April 20, 2022 12:27 pm

An Iowa judge has quashed a state licensing board’s subpoena for a counseling center’s billing records. (Photo illustration by Iowa Capital Dispatch)

An Iowa judge has quashed a state licensing board’s subpoena for a counseling center’s billing records.

The Iowa Board of Behavioral Science issued a subpoena last spring, aimed at Ardent Counseling Center in Fairfield. The board’s investigator wanted the contact information and billing records for six named patients as part of an investigation into an unspecified individual who was licensed by the board and employed by Ardent.

Ardent took the matter to an administrative law judge and filed a motion to quash the subpoena, arguing that billing records and the contact information of patients should be considered mental health records that are afforded a higher level of protection from disclosure than other types of medical records.

In June, Administrative Law Judge Carla Hamborg sided with board and denied the center’s motion, ordering Ardent to produce the records within 14 days. In her ruling, Hamborg stated the requested documents were not mental health records and so the board was not subject to certain standards in demanding their disclosure.

Ardent appealed that ruling to Iowa District Court, which resulted in a recent decision by District Judge Heather Lauber siding with the counseling center.

Citing a previous Iowa Supreme Court ruling that says patients have an interest in keeping secret not just the details of their mental health treatment, but also their decision to seek such treatment, Lauber found that even billing records, which would confirm an individual’s status as a patient, are to be considered mental health records.

Lauber stated that this finding, by itself, did not prohibit the board from obtaining the requested records through a lawfully issued subpoena, noting that there was “no doubt that there is a public interest in regulated mental health professionals.”

However, Lauber noted, before subpoenaing such records, the board is required by an administrative rule to at least make an attempt to contact the individuals whose records are being sought. If a routine search for those patients proves to be unsuccessful, she ruled, the board can then attest to that fact and issue a new subpoena.

“In the age of Google, the board can attempt to locate and contact the necessary individuals,” Lauber stated in her ruling. “The rule only requires the board attempt to contact the individuals.”

The court records do not indicate which of the licensed counselors employed by Ardent’s Fairfield office is the subject of board scrutiny.

One of the center’s present-day counselors, Angela Andeway of Fairfield, was the subject of a 2020 disciplinary order by the board. That order was based on findings that Andeway had provided therapy to a client for roughly two years while failing “to establish and maintain appropriate boundaries” with the client. Andeway, the board alleged, “continued to provide therapy to the client when the client should have been referred to another provider.”

Andeway’s license was placed on probation for two years and she was ordered to complete 10 hours of continuing education related to professional boundaries.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.