- The HHS on Friday said it is releasing new guidance that clarifies how and when providers can share patient health information to family, friends and legal representatives in the case of incapacitation, such as an opioid overdose.
- The announcement came soon after President Donald Trump declared the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. The declaration aims to increase access to treatment, but did not include any new funding.
- In a press release, HHS said misunderstandings about HIPAA create obstacles to proper care. “Our clarifying guidance will give medical professionals increased confidence in their ability to cooperate with friends and family members to help save lives,” HHS Office for Civil Rights Director Roger Severino said.
Providers on the front lines have said clear guidance on dealing with family and friends of a patient with an opioid-related medical emergency is important to ensuring the best possible treatment. Some have argued privacy rules already permit this communication when a patient is overdosing, but providers are wary of any action that may violate HIPAA.
The new guidance states healthcare professionals can disclose some health information without a patient’s permission when the patient is “incapacitated or unconscious” and this information can “prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to a patient’s health or safety.”
The document gives the example of a doctor with a patient who has overdosed on opioids. The doctor is complying with HIPAA by telling family, friends or caregivers of the opioid abuse having determined there is a serious and imminent threat to the patient’s health through continued opioid abuse.
HHS said HIPAA anticipates that a patient’s decision-making ability may change during the course of treatment. “If a patient regains the capacity to make healthcare decisions, the provider must offer the patient the opportunity to agree or object before any additional sharing of health information.”
Trump’s emergency declaration last week was generally praised but seen as only the first step in fighting a massive problem. The administration is working off of a draft report from the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis that made several recommendations for addressing the emergency. It called for more HIPAA clarification, stating some regulations act as a barrier to communication that could save a patient’s life. “Making it administratively difficult for providers to share information has ill effects on patients in both physical and behavioral health settings, by restraining physicians’ ability to make informed healthcare decisions,” it reads.