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By Katherine Landergan for POLITICO
MORRISTOWN — The presidential opioid commission may propose changing patient privacy regulations so there are clear exemptions for overdose cases, Gov. Chris Christie, the commission chairman, said Monday.
Christie said the commission could recommend a retooling of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, or HIPAA, so physicians can notify close relatives when a patient’s overdose is reversed with the drug Narcan.
“I don’t think we should make it a right to kill yourself easily without the intervention of your loved ones,” Christie said during remarks about the opioid epidemic at an event in Morristown.
Christie told reporters he recently had a “great meeting” with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price in which the two discussed the issue. He also said he is in talks with lawyers at the Justice Department to make sure the commission comes up with a proposal that is implementable.
HIPAA created national guidelines for how to protect a patient’s medical records and other health information. But according to Joy Pritts, a former chief privacy officer at the Office of the National Coordinator for Health IT, a division within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the statute should already give physicians the power to notify close relatives when a patient is overdosing.
If a person has overdosed and is not fully conscious, a physician can contact his or her family members, Pritts said, although the administration might find it necessary to clarify this point.
“There is very much a lack of understanding of all the exemptions in HIPAA, even among health care providers,” Pritts said.
The statute may not even need to be tweaked, she said, and the administration could issue additional guidance on this issue.
In late March, President Donald Trump created a new White House commission on opioids and named Christie as its chair. The move marked the president’s first real step to address a key campaign promise of solving the opioid crisis, which is linked to tens of thousands of deaths each year.
On Monday, Christie spoke about how, while on the presidential campaign trail, he met the parents of a child who died from an overdose. The parents told the then-presidential candidate it was only not until after their son died that they learned he previously overdosed six times.
“Those parents looked at me and said, ‘The way we feel today is we let him down, because we didn’t know. We couldn’t save our own child. The law prevented us from having the chance to save our own child,’” Christie said. “It’s unacceptable to me, it makes no sense.”
Christie declined to give further specifics about the proposal but said the commission should have more information in its interim report, which is expected within the next three weeks.
Dr. Deborah Peel, the president of the Patient Privacy Rights organization, praised Christie’s idea and said it should be clear that health care professionals can call family members if a patient is in serious imminent danger.
“When someone is unconscious you should violate their privacy to save a life,” Peel said.