New guidance aims to clarify patient privacy rules

In this 2003 staff file photo, volunteer Betty Lucas, right, answers questions for Joyce Jackson at the Parkridge Medical Center information desk.

All health information isn't protected equally, and understanding the nuances of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, is important for providers and caretakers, particularly in an emergency situation - like an opioid overdose.

HIPAA prevents health professionals and organizations from sharing protected information without a patient's consent, but it also permits sharing information if a patient is incapacitated, unconscious or in imminent danger. However, some health care providers don't share that information over fear of violating privacy rules, which could inhibit essential treatment.

Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, who leads the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, addressed this concern during a U.S. Senate Health Committee hearing on Wednesday.

"Just last week, I was at a national meeting of substance abuse treatment providers, and the issue of sharing information was one of their main issues," she said, adding that often information is withheld because practitioners mistakenly think it is covered by 42 CFR, a separate regulation that applies to records related to treatment of patients in substance abuse programs.