HHS says providers, HIEs must get consent to share substance abuse records electronically

Two HHS agencies have published answers to frequently asked questions in an attempt to clarify how records of patients' treatment for alcohol and drug abuse can be shared electronically. A federal law that predates HIPAA prohibits disclosure of such records without patient consent.

The Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration now say that records pertaining to substance abuse can be shared on a health information exchange if treatment programs obtain patient consent to disclose their information to HIEs and their technology partners. Patients also must consent for HIEs to redistribute records to specific participating providers, and patients must be told the nature of each disclosure.

"The consent requirement is often perceived as a barrier to the electronic exchange of health information," the two agencies say. "However, as explained in other FAQs, it is possible to electronically exchange drug and alcohol treatment information while also meeting the requirements of [the confidentiality law]."

One particular sticking point has been with primary-care physicians who need complete patient histories so they can determine whether any drug they prescribe may interact with a medication given for substance abuse treatment, Government Health IT reports. Based on the guidance, primary-care physicians still will have to obtain patient consent to see records related to such treatment.

For more information:
- read this Government Health IT story
- visit the SAMHSA website on health information privacy

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