Following the United States’ Supreme Court’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade and Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, 30 groups have written a letter to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Secretary Xavier Becerra requesting an update to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to ensure the privacy of patients’ reproductive health data. As a result of the Supreme Court’s decision, numerous states either outlawed abortion for their citizens or imposed limitations, and some have even started looking into and punishing women who obtain abortion services.
The senators, under the leadership of Patty Murray, chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, requested the HHS to update the HIPAA Privacy Rule. They ask that the HHS prohibit organizations who are subject to HIPAA law from disclosing reproductive health data without obtaining prior consent from the individual, particularly to law enforcement and ask the HHS to provide clarity regarding the permitted and required disclosures of PHI to law enforcement. In the letter, the senators detail how the Supreme Court’s Dobbs ruling has left healthcare providers confused about when they are required to submit sensitive patient data to law enforcement. For the senators, it is essential for healthcare providers to be made aware of their requirements under HIPAA law to prevent non permitted disclosures. “In order for patients to feel comfortable seeking care, and for health care personnel to provide this care, patients and providers must know that their personal health information, including information about their medical decisions, will be protected.” The senators warn that restricting access to abortions and jeopardizing the privacy of medical records will certainly have disastrous effects on women’s reproductive health. Many women may postpone or avoid announcing a pregnancy or skipping prenatal treatment if legal action is threatened.
The senators commended the HHS’s actions following the Dobbs ruling, which included providing clarification on the HIPAA Privacy Rule’s duties with regard to data pertaining to reproductive care, but they also asked for more proactive measures to bolster patient privacy rights. However, the senators also ask the HHS to step up its efforts to involve and inform the health sector about the responsibilities of HIPAA-regulated organizations under the HIPAA Privacy Rule, including clarifying the distinction between permitted and required disclosures of PHI, best practices for informing patients and health plan enrollees about their privacy rights, and how HIPAA works in conjunction with state laws.