Wall Street Journal, October 27, 2017
Michelle Hackman

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WASHINGTON--The Trump administration announced Friday it is relaxing a federal privacy rule that prevents health providers from notifying family members about a drug overdose, one of the administration's most significant policy shifts to combat the nation's opioid crisis.

The new rule will explicitly permit health-care providers to share information with family members, friends and legal representatives about a patient's medical condition if the patient is in crisis or incapacitated, such as during an opioid overdose.

"We know that support from family members and friends is key to helping people struggling with opioid addiction, but their loved ones can't help if they aren't informed of the problem," said Roger Severino, Director of the Office for Civil Rights at the department of Health and Human Services, which announced the change.

The new guidance comes a day after President Donald Trump declared opioid use disorders a public health emergency and promised to accelerate the federal government's response to the crisis. The change in privacy rules was also one of the top recommendations made by Mr. Trump's White House Commission on opioids in an August report.

The question of whether to alter patient privacy laws has long been the focus of an emotional debate in the addiction community. Supporters of loosening existing restrictions say they limit doctors' ability to share critical information with family members, who could potentially intervene to prevent future overdoses.

But opponents say they provide vital protection for people with substance use disorders, whose addictions could be considered a crime, particularly if they are misusing an illegal drug like heroin. Allowing physicians to share information about drug treatment, advocates fear, could inadvertently allow the information to reach employers or law-enforcement officials, when the patient needs care rather than punishment. [...]

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