Federal officials want to ease 40-year-old limits on release of information about patients’ drug- and alcohol-abuse treatment, so their electronic medical records can be more easily used and shared, reports the Wall Street Journal. Federal law has long protected substance-abuse-treatment records from being disclosed to anyone without a patient’s explicit consent, so that fear of stigma or discrimination wouldn’t deter those in need from seeking help. If a patient agrees to share substance-abuse records with, say, a doctor or hospital, those records can’t be sent anywhere else unless the patient consents again.
Officials at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) say those rules didn’t envision today’s integrated health-care systems that rely on the broad sharing of patients’ detailed electronic medical records to coordinate care. The Obama administration is paying doctors and hospitals $36 billion in incentives to move to such systems, which proponents say can reduce medical errors and duplication and cut costs. Many of those systems find the consent rules unworkable, the agency says, particularly the state and regional hubs that transfer such patient records among health-care providers, known as Health Information Exchanges. Many HIEs simply exclude drug and alcohol information rather than seek repeated patient consent each time a record is shared down the line. Only Congress can change the law itself, but SAMHSA is considering revising regulations that define consent.