Seeking addiction treatment is difficult for a variety of reasons. Admitting that you have the disease of addiction is not easy, and most people want to be confident that only those people they want to know about their decision find out.

The last thing people seeking addiction treatment need is fear that information about the addiction will reach people who have no need to know about it. Fortunately, the strict rules of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) are designed to protect patient confidentiality.

Some people are worried about a new ruling by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the government agency under the Department of Health and Human Services that leads public health efforts to improve Americans’ behavioral health. One of SAMHSA’s goals is to reduce the impact of substance abuse and mental illness on American communities.

What the New SAMHSA Ruling Says

The new rule changes the Confidentiality of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Patient Records regulations so that patient records are still privacy-protected, yet easier to use in integrated health information systems that exchange information among providers and insurers. Ultimately, the new rule should allow more efficient and cost-effective healthcare models, making sharing of relevant healthcare information faster among entities that are authorized to use it.

Concern for the confidentiality of people in addiction treatment dates back to 1975 when citizens raised concerns that if their identities were divulged, they would be subject to social consequences, discrimination, and criminal prosecution. These fears kept many people from seeking treatment. Confidentiality protections have been greatly strengthened since then, however.

Why the New Rule May Benefit People in Addiction Treatment

Coordination of care is extremely important in addiction treatment. Other mental and physical illnesses are often diagnosed along with substance abuse disorders, and it is essential that everyone providing care has access to the patient records they need to offer the right services. Under the old rules, sharing information was not as clearly delineated, and healthcare providers were worried about electronically sharing with subcontractors, fearful of running afoul of HIPAA, under which violations can be extremely costly.

Addiction treatment

With the new rule, providers and other authorized users know what the provisions are for sharing, and every provider must ensure all contractors and subcontractors are apprised of the rule and will take the same steps with their subcontractors. In other words, it is easier to share information, yet personal information is still tightly protected under HIPAA.

HIPAA Confidentiality Rules Still Apply

Clients still determine how much information a treatment facility can share about their treatment. They each complete and sign an Authorization for Release of Information, so that they control whether others (like family members) can be given information about:

  • The fact that they are in treatment
  • Progress and participation during addiction treatment
  • Substance abuse history
  • Diagnoses and treatment results
  • Aftercare recommendations
  • Medical and therapeutic records

In short, people seeking addiction treatment services can be just as confident as they were before the SAMHSA ruling that their personal health information will be protected.

Those Bound by New Rule Must Ensure Contractors Comply Fully

The SAMHSA rule specifically calls out providers and other authorized users of information about people in addiction treatment to not only ensure that they protect patient privacy when sharing information using electronic health records and other electronic systems, but also that they ensure each and every contractor they use attests to their own compliance with patient privacy rules.

If you are caught in the sticky web of addiction, then you certainly do not need to be worried that information about your addiction that you want to be kept private is released to unauthorized parties. The new SAMHSA ruling reinforces the sanctity of patient privacy while making legitimate sharing of treatment information more efficient, and that is good news for both patients and providers. We encourage you to contact us at any time if you have questions or concerns about addiction treatment.

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SAMHSA Ruling on Patient Confidentiality: What Patients in Addiction Treatment Should Know
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