HHS proposal seeks to improve care coordination for patients with substance use disorder

A proposed regulation aims to make it easier for providers to coordinate care among patients suffering from substance use disorder (SUD) by harmonizing privacy protections for those patients' medical records.

The notice of proposed rulemaking, released Monday by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), strives for a balance between protecting privacy but also facilitating information sharing between providers.

“Varying requirements of privacy laws can slow treatment, inhibit care and perpetuate negative stereotypes about people facing substance use challenges,” said HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a statement. 

The goal of the proposal is to bring regulations that protect patient records in federally run SUD programs into greater alignment with parts of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). 

Currently, the SUD rules create different requirements for providers compared with HIPAA. This can cause barriers to “information sharing by patients and among healthcare providers and create dual obligations and compliance challenges for regulated entities,” HHS said in a statement. 

One of the key changes in the regulations is that it would allow patients to give a single consent for all future “uses and disclosures for treatment, payment and healthcare operations,” HHS added. 

It would also update notification requirements to affected patients if there is a breach of their data and would expand prohibitions on the use and disclosure of SUD records “in civil, criminal, administrative and legislative proceedings,” the release said. 

SUD patients can get a full account of any disclosures and can request certain restrictions on disclosures.

The notice of proposed rulemaking comes as lawmakers are pressing the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) to improve Medicare’s coverage of SUD. 

Back in October, lawmakers called for CMS to rely on new funding and existing authority to expand Medicare coverage for those who are suffering from SUD. 

Even though Medicare does cover low-intensive levels of SUD such as therapy, it does not cover the full continuum of care, the lawmakers note.

Some experts have called for CMS to look at other barriers to SUD treatment such as strict licensure requirements and low reimbursement rates.