Waived HIPAA regulations in wake of Orlando shooting stirs confusion

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.

Source: msnbc/corpcounsel