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HHS Secretary Announces New Rule To Allow Doctors To Access Patients’ Addiction Records

by Nathan Yerby |  ❘ 

Secretary Azar Proposes Allowing Doctors To Access Addiction Records To Prevent Opioid Overdoses

On August 22, Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) Alex Azar announced that he will modify a federal rule to allow doctors and hospitals to include a patient’s history of addiction and addiction treatment in their medical records. This will allow healthcare providers to find out whether a patient has a history of substance abuse before prescribing them potentially addictive medications, such as opioids and benzodiazepines. Under the new regulation, healthcare providers may only access this information with consent from the patient.

The new rule also allows doctors to access prescription databases to find out whether patients who request prescriptions for opioids are already receiving them from other healthcare providers. Secretary Azar proposed the new rule to reduce the incidence of “doctor-shopping” and prevent patients from overdosing on medications. The rule is currently subject to public comment for a period of 60 days.

What Happened Before This Rule?

According to Secretary Azar, the existing rules which his proposal will replace “serve as a barrier to safe, coordinated care for patients.” In 1975, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare amended the Code of Federal Regulations to effectively prohibit doctors from sharing information about a patient’s history of substance use. The intention of the original rule was to encourage people to seek medical care for using illegal drugs by preventing law enforcement from accessing medical records.

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However, the 1975 rule has also prevented doctors from sharing that information with other healthcare providers. According to Secretary Azar, the opioid epidemic has rendered the original rule obsolete and counterproductive. As a result of the rule, one doctor could prescribe a patient opioids without being aware that they already have opioids or that they struggle with opioid addiction. Additionally, a doctor who knows that a patient is using opioids may not be able to inform another doctor for the same patient. This increases the risk that the patient could receive more than one prescription and suffer an overdose.

The information is currently so tightly restricted that even with the patient’s consent to share information, some health care providers are unwilling to record needed information on a patient’s health or treatment.

- Alex Azar, Secretary of Health and Human Services

Opposition To Secretary Azar’s Proposal

There is already a bill pending in Congress to resolve this problem. “Jessie’s Law,” as the bill is called, is named for Jessica Grubb, a woman from Michigan who received a prescription for oxycodone after a surgery even though she told doctors that she had a history of addiction. With the 1975 rule in effect, the doctors were not able to verify what she told them in her medical records. Jessica died from an overdose that very night. “Jessie’s Law” has bipartisan support in the House of Representatives, yet it has failed to gather support in the Senate.

Several advocacy groups oppose Azar’s new rule. For example, groups like the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence have expressed concerns about patients losing their privacy and being stigmatized as addicts in the medical system. However, the Department of Health and Human Services promises that the new rule, apart from serving as a necessary legal reform, will also protect patients’ privacy. According to Elinore McCance-Katz, the Administrator of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the new rule will “ease the sharing of information, reduce burden for providers, and increase access to care for individuals while at the same time maintaining important privacy controls.”

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