Recently, the federal government has been working on legislation related to the opioid crisis. More specifically, they have been addressing the issue of how information about a patient’s substance use disorder can be shared with medical professionals.
In June, the House passed the Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act, also known as H.R. 6082. This act was meant to ease restrictions on the sharing of health records belonging to patients with addictions, and better aligning HIPAA rules with something called 42 CFR Part 2, Confidentiality of Substance Use Disorder Patient Records. 42 CFR Part 2 only allows the health records of patients with substance abuse disorder to be disclosed without written consent to medical staff in emergency situations, to specified individuals for research and program evaluations, or if doing so is required by a court order. A patient has to sign a release form allowing information about their addiction to be added to their medical record.
It’s been argued that not having information about substance use disorders in medical records prevents doctors from doing their jobs properly and even puts patients at risk. For example, if someone comes into an emergency room after a car accident, doctors’ first response might be to give them morphine or a similar painkiller. However, they have no way of knowing if that person is already abusing opioids, and giving them that drug could potentially cause an overdose. The Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act allows the health records of these patients to be disclosed without written consent for the purposes of treatment, payment, and healthcare operations. This information cannot, however, be used in criminal and civil prosecution cases or shared with employers and landlords.
After that act passed the House, the Senate put forth a substitute amendment called the Opioid Crisis Response Act of 2018. Among other things, this act would reauthorize funding to states to address opioid abuse, provide support for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to improve state prescription drug monitoring programs, authorize grants to create comprehensive opioid recovery centers, implement state plans for drug-exposed infants, and make certain healthcare professionals who provide substance use disorder treatment services eligible for federal loan repayment programs.
What the Senate plan doesn’t do is provide a significant increase in actual spending related to the opioid crisis. Most of the funding is left to later appropriations that would have to be done by Congress. Experts say that ensuring more people get access to substance abuse treatment will cost tens of billions of dollars. Congress plans to add $6 billion over two years to fight opioids, which sounds like a lot of money, but compare that to the $32 billion annual budget to fight illnesses like HIV, and it begins to look like a drop in the bucket.
The Senate is expected to vote on their act next week. If passed, it will still need approval from the full Congress and the president to become law.
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