Opioid Crisis and Flexibility Under HIPAA


Clarifying Guidance

Although federal regulations appear immovable and monolithic at times, change does happen. One recent example is how the opioid epidemic led the Office for Civil Rights to clarify how health care providers can communicate with family and friends of patients who have overdosed or are incapacitated. Family and close friends are critical to any patient's health progress, and when the risks are elevated in an emergency, full communication is essential.

While HIPAA has always allowed health professionals to share health information with a patient’s loved ones in emergency or dangerous situations, the rules are often misunderstood. By emphasizing how communications are permitted rather than restricted, OCR hopes to help health care professionals provide better care for patients in danger from overdose. In October 2017, Roger Severino, the OCR Director said:

“Our clarifying guidance will give medical professionals increased confidence in their ability to cooperate with friends and family members to help save lives.”

Support for Behavioral Health

In addition to the guidance released in October, HHS and OCR in December launched an array of new tools to help combat the opioid epidemic.

These new tools, several of which are specifically related to behavioral health, include:

  • Two new HIPAA webpages for mental and behavioral health, one for consumers and one for professionals

  • Collaborations among partnering agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to develop model programs around the use and disclosure of Protected Health Information

  • Updated guidance on HIPAA and research, as called for in the 21st Century Cures Act

  • Launch of a working group to study and report on the uses and disclosures under HIPAA of protected health information for research purposes

Flexibility and new approaches should be welcomed if it means the quality of healthcare will improve and lives will be saved. On the other hand, care will need to be taken to ensure that patient privacy remains sacrosanct. Because discrimination remains a concern, patients want to be sure that disclosures remain within the family or to approved legal representatives, not to employers, law enforcement or the public.