The US Government has issued the final rule to safeguard the privacy of patient medical records linked to reproductive healthcare, including abortions. 

This rule prohibits the disclosure of protected health information (PHI) associated with lawful reproductive healthcare under the Health Insurance Portability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule, bolstering privacy protection for patients and doctors seeking and facilitating lawful reproductive care. 

Through this move, the government looks to protect the privacy of patients who live in states where reproductive care such as abortion is illegal and travel to other states for the purpose. 

The new rule, announced through the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Office for Civil Rights (OCR), is titled “HIPAA Privacy Rule to Support Reproductive Health Care Privacy” and was initially proposed on 12 April. 

It is designed to fortify the confidentiality between patients and their healthcare providers or health plans, fostering trust and open communication. 

The rule comes amid total abortion bans in 14 US states.  

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As per data from the Guttmacher Institute, which is dedicated to supporting reproductive health and rights, 92,100 people crossed state lines to receive abortion care in the first half of 2023, up from 40,600 in the same period in 2020.  

HHS said that it is implementing this final rule in response to feedback from communities that called for enhanced measures to protect patient confidentiality and prevent the misuse of medical records in the context of lawful reproductive healthcare.  

OCR, which oversees the enforcement of the Privacy Rule, requires most healthcare providers, healthcare clearinghouses, health plans, and business associates to protect the privacy of PHI.  

The HIPAA Privacy Rule also grants individuals specific rights over their PHI.  

In April last year, OCR also proposed modifications to the HIPAA Privacy Rule to better address the evolving legal landscape surrounding reproductive health care privacy. 

After receiving close to 30,000 public comments on the proposed changes, the Department has issued a Final Rule.  

To comply with the rule, regulated entities such as healthcare providers, health plans, and clearinghouses, along with their business associates, must obtain a signed attestation confirming that certain requests for PHI related to reproductive health care are not for prohibited purposes.  

Additionally, these entities are required to update their Notice of Privacy Practices to reflect their commitment to reproductive healthcare privacy. 

HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra said: “Many Americans are scared their private medical information will be being shared, misused, and disclosed without permission. This has a chilling effect on women visiting a doctor, picking up a prescription from a pharmacy, or taking other necessary actions to support their health. 

“The Biden-Harris Administration is providing stronger protections to people seeking lawful reproductive healthcare regardless of whether care is in their home state or if they must cross state lines to get it.”