Biden admin seeks to strengthen abortion protections under HIPAA

The rule seeks to safeguard women's access to abortion drugs.
Biden admin seeks to strengthen abortion protections under HIPAA
Posted at 10:25 PM, Apr 12, 2023

The White House on Wednesday proposed new safeguards to protect women seeking abortions after conflicting rulings by federal judges over the fate of the FDA's decades-old approval of mifepristone for abortions. 

"America is facing a healthcare crisis," Vice President Kamala Harris said while announcing the proposal at the White House, flanked by Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. The vice president described meeting with families across the U.S., and how the changes in laws have impacted them personally. 

"The women of America, in particular, have been in a state of fear about what this means for them, what this means for the people they love," she said. "Health care providers, most of whom have had a calling to do the good and important work of taking care of other people, are in fear of losing their licenses — and worse, even being prosecuted and criminalized for the work that they do that is about providing health care for people in our country." 

The new rule, officially issued by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), would strengthen HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) by prohibiting protected health information, such as abortion procedures or medications, from being disclosed for "criminal, civil or administrative investigation." The rule specifically relates to reproductive health care sought in another state where it remains legal, or health care management that falls under the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act — such as miscarriages. 

The rule is now in the public comment phase for the next 60 days before it becomes active. Last week, Idaho's governor signed a law that makes it the first state to limit interstate travel for abortions. 

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The HHS Secretary also announced a new "Notice of Funding" to create a secure national hotline that would provide referral services and legal rights for reproductive health care options. 

Simultaneously, the Department of Education will alert 20,000 school officials that they "must obtain written consent from eligible students or parents before disclosing personally identifiable information from students' educational records, which may include student health information." 

Two recent rulings are likely to lead to a Supreme Court case. 

One ruling out of Texas that would halt prescription and distribution of the abortion drug mifepristone by Friday has been appealed by both the Justice Department and the drug's manufacturer. 

Meanwhile, a Washington state ruling blocked the FDA from "altering the status quo and rights as it relates to the availability of mifepristone." 

The drug has been on the market in the U.S. for 20 years following FDA approval to terminate a pregnancy prior to 10 weeks' gestation, or roughly six weeks past a missed period. Medicated abortions account for more than half all abortions in the U.S. 

The Justice Department and the manufacturer of mifepristone have already appealed, asking the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to put on hold the judge's ruling that could make the drug unavailable nationwide starting Friday at midnight. 

During Wednesday's  meeting, Garland addressed what the Justice Department saw as the ramifications of the Texas ruling. 

"It would allow doctors to challenge FDA approval of any drug, or any other federal action, that allegedly injured third parties," he said. "This could happen to any medication that Americans will have, no matter how essential it is. And no matter how long ago it was approved."

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