March 9, 2001
The Honorable Brad Owen
Washington State Lieutenant Governor
Olympia, WA 98504
Dear Lieutenant Governor Owen:
Legislative offices frequently receive calls from constituents asking for assistance
with an issue involving the Department of Social and Health Services, and we
have had several inquiries regarding the Department’s position on releasing
confidential information regarding DSHS clients to legislators or legislative staff. I
would like to take this opportunity to clarify our legal requirements and instructions
to our staff.
Fairly stringent state and federal laws regarding release of confidential client
information govern all of our programs. For example, federal regulations for states
receiving funds under Title IV-A of the Social Security Act (45 CFR 205.50)
specifically prohibit the disclosure “of any information that identifies by name or
address any applicant or recipient to any Federal, State, or local committee or
legislative body other than in connection with” specific activities outlined in the
regulation (e.g. reporting abuse, criminal investigation, and other federally
supported programs providing cash or other assistance.) Similarly, state laws
implementing this federal requirement (RCW 74.04.060 and RCW 26.23.120)
clearly prohibit sharing of confidential information without consent, except as
necessary to administer the programs. I have attached copies of the regulations
for your information.
To implement these federal and state laws, Department policy requires the client’s
written consent before disclosing any client information. I realize that you and your
staff are interested in assisting persons who call with problems as quickly as
possible, and we would like to work with you to ensure that happens. There are a
number of avenues to assist clients in answering questions or resolving issues
with the Department that may eliminate the need to seek written consent and
release of records.
The Department has a 1-800 constituent relations number available to
assist clients. In addition, most of the programs have program-specific
1-800 numbers with knowledgeable staff available to answer questions
and resolve problems. As noted in the attached People Helping People
brochure, our website contains a list of 1-800 numbers available to you,
your staff, and clients. We are most often able to resolve any issue at
this level, and I strongly recommend it as the first avenue, especially
because we often hear from clients that they do not wish specific case
information released, only that an individual matter be resolved.
If, in discussions between your staff and the constituent, it becomes
necessary to obtain case information, you may:
o Use the general release information form available from local
Community Services Offices or on-line at
http://www.wa.gov/dshs/dcs/17-63.pfd. Please be specific about
the information being requested. Some programs, such as drug
and alcohol treatment programs, require releases specifically
naming these records.
o Send a letter requesting the specific information, including an
authorizing signature from the client. This is sufficient for most
programs. However, standard procedure in all public disclosure or
release of information requests is to verify the client’s signature on
the letter or release form with local office records or a call to the
client before documents are released.
In the six months I’ve been Secretary of DSHS, I have become more impressed
with the commitment, dedication, and quality of staff serving the citizens of
Washington State. They are all committed to providing quality care and services
to our clients, and to working with you and your staff to resolve client issues as
quickly as possible. They are just as committed, however, to maintaining the
privacy and confidentiality our clients have entrusted to them.
I realize this may represent a change in practice for some legislative staffers, and
perhaps for some of our program staff. I believe client privacy is critical, however,
to the people we serve.
Thank you for you consideration. If you have questions, please contact Bernie
Friedman, Special Assistant for Loss Prevention and Risk Management, at 902-
Cc: DSHS Assistant Secretaries