Feds Issue Final Rule on Sharing of Substance Abuse Records

Alicia Ault

January 13, 2017

The federal government has issued a final rule that makes data about a patient's substance use history more readily available to help with coordination of care but that also mandates privacy protection measures.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) published the final rule on confidentiality of patient records with respect to substance use disorder in the Federal Register on January 13.

SAMHSA first proposed a change in policy in February 2016, noting that policies governing confidentiality of records for substance use treatment had not been addressed since 1987. Much has changed since then, including the development of electronic health records and systems of health delivery that aim to coordinate care, SAMHSA notes.

The older rules prohibited disclosure of treatment without explicit consent from the patient or under certain situations. The goal was to protect individuals from employment or insurance discrimination or from legal action.

The new policy seeks to bring the treatment of substance use disorder into the modern era "by facilitating electronic exchange of substance use disorder information for treatment and other legitimate health care purposes while ensuring appropriate confidentiality protections for records that might identify an individual, directly or indirectly, as having or having had a substance use disorder," according to the final rule.

When the rule was first proposed, Health and Human Services Department Secretary Sylvia Burwell said in a statement that it "will help patients with substance use disorders fully participate and benefit from a health care delivery system that's better, smarter and healthier, while protecting their privacy."

The new rule's protections for people with substance use disorders are more stringent than other health privacy laws, including the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, according to the federal government.

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