A bill ostensibly aimed at reducing opioid overdoses passed the House last month, but rather than cheering it on, drug treatment and recovery advocates are lining up to block it in the Senate. That’s because instead of being aimed at reducing overdoses, the bill is actually a means of removing patient privacy protections from some of the most vulnerable people with opioid problems, including people using methadone-assisted therapy to control their addictions.
The measure is now before the Senate. (Creative Commons)
And that, advocates say, is likely to increase — not decrease — opioid overdoses by pushing users away from drug treatment out of fear the information they reveal could be used against them. The fear is real: Unlike other medical conditions, drug addiction leaves patients open to criminal prosecution, as well as stigmatization and other negative social consequences if their status as drug treatment or maintenance patients is revealed.
This bill, H.R. 6082, the Overdose Prevention and Patient Safety Act, would remove drug treatment patients’ ability to control the disclosure of information to health plans, health care providers, and other entities, leaving them with only the lesser privacy protections afforded to all patients under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996.
“The confidentiality law is often the only shield between an individual in recovery and the many forms of discrimination that could irreparably damage their lives and future,” said Paul Samuels, President/Director of the Legal Action Center. “Unfortunately, there is a very real danger of serious negative consequences for people whose history of substance use disorder is disclosed without their explicit consent.”
The Legal Action Center is spearheading the effort to block this bill with the Campaign to Protect Patients’ Privacy Rights, which counts more than a hundred organizations, including the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence, AIDS United, Community Catalyst, Faces and Voices of Recovery, Facing Addiction, Harm Reduction Coalition, National Advocates for Pregnant Women, National Alliance for Medication Assisted Recovery and the, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
The current patient privacy protections, known as 42 C.F.R. Part 2 (“Part 2”), were established more than 40 years ago to ensure that people with a substance use disorder are not made more vulnerable to discriminatory practices and legal consequences as a result of seeking treatment. The rules prevent treatment providers from disclosing information about a patient’s substance use treatment without patient consent in most circumstances. The bill’s plan to replace Part 2’s confidentiality requirements with HIPAA’s more relaxed standards would not sufficiently protect people seeking and receiving SUD treatment and could expose patients to great harm, the advocates charge.
“They should call this the Taking Away Protections Act,” said Jocelyn Woods, head of the National Alliance for Medication-Assisted Recovery. “People will be afraid to go into treatment. I’m getting emails from people who want to leave treatment before this happens. If I were going into a program and they can’t tell me my information will be safe, I would think about turning around and walking out,” she said.
“Many of us would not have gone to treatment or accepted services if we thought that our information would have been shared with other entities without our permission. We would not have put our careers, reputation or families at risk of stigma and discrimination if we were not assured that information about our substance use disorder was safe and would only be shared with our consent,” added Patty McCarthy Metcalf, executive director of Faces and Voices of Recovery.
The push for the bill is being led by health information software companies and behavioral health providers, such as Hazelden and the Betty Ford Center, and it prioritizes convenience over patient privacy.
“This is because the behavioral health people see complying with the privacy requirements as a pain in the ***,” said Woods. “They’re going to have to fix their computer systems to block out any treatment program licensed by the federal government — not just methadone programs — and they don’t want to do that. One of the software companies, Netsmart, complained that they don’t want to mess with their programming,” she said.
“We need Part 2,” Woods continued. “It keeps police out of the program. Without it, police can walk right in. They already sit outside methadone clinics and bust people for DUI on the way out. If this passes, they will walk right in. If the police see anyone they think has a warrant or committed a crime, they’re gone.”
While the bill has made its way through the House, advocates are hopeful it will stall in the Senate.
“The House pushed this through because they wanted to look like they were doing something and because the behavioral health people were pushing for it,” Woods said, “but my sense is that it’s moving slowly in the Senate. We have this crazy president, and there’s immigration, and the congressional break, and then campaign season. My hope is we can push this past the elections and a blue wave in November will give us a fighting chance.”
But the campaign isn’t taking any chances and is mobilized to fight on the Hill in the next few months to block the bill. As Mark Parrino, President of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence warned: “In the midst of the worst opioid epidemic in our nation’s history, we cannot afford to have patients fearful of seeking treatment because they do not have faith that their confidentiality will be protected.”