OCR Rolls Out New HIPAA Guidance Docs

Happy holidays from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)! As Politico first reported, just in time for Christmas and Hanukkah, the agency has rolled out a series of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) guidance documents and other tools for providers, with a particular focus on behavioral and mental health and substance abuse practitioners. The guidance was required following last year’s passage in Congress of the sweeping 21st Century Cures Act, which was signed into law in December of 2016. Among its provisions, the law allotted additional resources for treatment of and research on mental health and substance abuse disorders.

What’s included in the new tools? For one, OCR has developed two dedicated websites—one for providers, and one for consumers—where users can access new and existing mental health-related HIPAA guidance. “This guidance is an important step forward in clarifying the circumstances under which HIPAA permits a covered entity to disclose information to family members and caregivers,” OCR said of the new guidance in a press release. Along with fact sheets and infographics on when information sharing is permitted, users will be able to find “materials specifically tailored to the parents of children who have a mental health condition.” OCR also issued new Cures Act-mandated “guidance on HIPAA and research,” and said that it would be working with other HHS offices to develop strategies for “training health care providers, patients, and their families regarding permitted uses and disclosures of the protected health information of patients seeking or undergoing mental health or substance use disorder treatment.” Finally, the agency announced the formation of an interagency HIPAA working group, the members of which will also include patients, providers, researchers, and privacy experts.

OCR also notes that the new guidance documents will be particularly useful as the country continues to grapple with the opioid addiction epidemic. According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data, more than 33,000 people died of opioid overdoses (either prescription drugs or heroin) in 2015. In October, President Donald Trump officially declared the opioid epidemic to be a public health emergency, which, among other things, permitted telehealth prescribing for drugs used to treat addiction. “President Trump has mobilized the entire Administration to address America’s opioid crisis,” OCR Director Roger Severino said in a statement accompanying the HIPAA guidance documents’ release. “HHS is using every tool at its disposal to help communities devastated by opioids, including educating families and doctors on how they can share information to help save the lives of loved ones.”

Click here to view HHS’ new HIPAA guidance documents.

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