Opioid crisis: Feds relax HIPAA rules so doctors can share information with family members of a patient who overdoses

Doctor examining patient
The HHS Office for Civil Rights said that the clarifying guidance will give medical professionals more confidence in their ability to cooperate with friends and family members. (Getty/kazoka30)

As a result of President Donald Trump’s declaration last week that the opioid crisis is now a national public health emergency, hospitals and physicians will have a little more leeway on what they can reveal to family and friends of a patient who overdoses or is incapacitated. 

Related: 4 actions the Trump administration will take now that opioid crisis is a national public health emergency

The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights has released new HIPAA guidance (PDF) on when and how healthcare providers can share a patient’s health information with his or her family members, friends and legal representative when a patient is in crisis.

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“We know that support from family members and friends is key to helping people struggling with opioid addiction, but their loved ones can’t help if they aren’t informed of the problem,” said Roger Severino, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights, in an announcement. “Our clarifying guidance will give medical professionals increased confidence in their ability to cooperate with friends and family members to help save lives.”

RELATED: Trump declares the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency

HIPAA regulations allow healthcare providers to share information with a patient’s loved ones in certain emergency or dangerous situations, such as when the information could help prevent or lessen a serious and imminent threat to a patient’s health or safety.

HIPAA allows healthcare professionals to disclose some health information without a patient’s permission under certain conditions, such as when a patient is incapacitated or unconscious and the information shared is directly related to the family or friend’s involvement in the patient’s healthcare or payment of care. However, the provider couldn’t share medical information unrelated to the overdose without permission.

Although the new guidance eases up on the rules, HHS noted if the provider’s state law is more restrictive on the communication of health information, then the provider must abide by the more restrictive law.

The looser restrictions will mean doctors can share critical information with family members who may be able to prevent future overdoses, but not everyone is in favor of easing up on other HIPAA rules, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“All of the protections are still critical, because people who seek treatment for substance use disorders are still reporting discrimination from healthcare providers and others,” Karla Lopez, senior staff attorney at the Legal Action Center, which fights discrimination against people with histories of addiction, told the newspaper.

Opponents' biggest concern is that the personal information may get in the hands of a patient’s employer or police, who may want to punish the patient instead of making sure the patient receives care for the disorder.

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