Waived HIPAA regulations in wake of Orlando shooting stirs confusion
June 14, 2016
The White House applied a unique waiver to HIPAA. In declaring the situation
in Orlando a national emergency, President Barack Obama and Secretary of Health
and Human Services Sylvia Mathews Burwell made it easier for family and friends
to gain quicker access to information.
This post-9/11 rule allows the administration to give hospitals a temporary
release from liability for revealing the identity and personal health information
of its patients during emergency situations.
Doctors and nurses who want to keep a patient's friends and family informed
about medical status, while trying to avoid a possible HIPAA violation, might
prefer the blanket protection provided by a waiver during times of emergency.
That's because the individual patient is not the only stakeholder when it comes
to health information. In fact, HIPAA was specifically written to ensure public
well-being – something that becomes very relevant in cases of emergency, when
panicked people are waiting in a hospital for critical news. While the original
law does allow physicians to share information with a patient's family, friends,
or other health care providers if a "reasonable inference" could be made based
on the circumstances, this is generally approached with great caution and most
doctors err on the side of maintaining silence. Which is why it's so critical
that Obama was able to invoke a revision of the Social Security Act (Section
1135), which was enacted after the Sept. 11 attacks, and explicitly authorizes
health care providers broad exemptions from the normal privacy safeguards relating
to sharing a patient’s protected health information – especially with friends
and loved ones in the event of an emergency.
The Slate piece added that yesterday’s waiver applies only to Orlando during
this "emergency period," which can last no longer than 72 hours. In the 20 years
in which HIPAA has been in effect, the only other time we’ve seen a waiver like
this issued by the executive branch was after Hurricane Katrina.