Witnesses Voice HIPAA Concerns During Congressional Hearing

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During a congressional hearing Friday, witnesses expressed concern that the HIPAA privacy rule could lead to unintended consequences by preventing health care providers from sharing critical medical information with family, caregivers and law enforcement officials, MedPage Today reports.

The hearing was held by the House Energy and Commerce Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee.

Comments During Hearing

During the hearing, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) -- a clinical psychologist and chair of the subcommittee -- said that health care providers' inability to disclose critical medical information could result in mentally ill patients committing suicide or killing others.

Carol Levine -- director of the United Hospital Fund's Families and Health Care project -- said the HIPAA privacy rule also might give health care providers "a very convenient excuse to avoid difficult conversations with family members."

Mark Rothstein -- director of the University of Louisville School of Medicine's Institute for Bioethics, Health Policy and Law -- said doctors often misinterpret HIPAA provisions about the information they can share. "The outcome is that some use of the disclosures permitted by the privacy rule are not allowed by some covered entities, perhaps out of ignorance or an overabundance of caution," Rothstein said  (Pittman, MedPage Today, 4/26).

OCR Official Responds to Concerns

Leon Rodriguez, who leads the HHS Office for Civil Rights, said the HIPAA privacy rule allows doctors to disclose health information to a patient's parents as long as the patient does not object.

If the patient does object, the health care provider still can "alert appropriate persons" if the patient "poses a serious [and] imminent threat to himself or herself, or to another person," Rodriguez said (Conn, Modern Healthcare, 4/26).

He added that OCR has "never taken enforcement action because a provider has decided in the best interested of a patient to disclose information to a third party" (Attias, CQ Roll Call, 4/26).

Efforts To Combat Misunderstandings

To clarify HIPAA provisions about data disclosures, HHS earlier this year issued a letter to health care providers explaining their rights and obligations under the law.

However, Rothstein and lawmakers said that more outreach is needed to educate physicians about the HIPAA privacy rule.

Deven McGraw, -- director of the Health Privacy Project at the Center for Democracy and Technology -- called for HHS to pursue new ways of sharing HIPAA guidance with health care providers, such as by partnering with professional societies. She added, "It sounds like too many people are hiding behind [HIPAA] when there are clear exceptions when information can be shared" (MedPage Today, 4/26).


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