Attorneys General Champion Increased Patient Privacy in Reproductive Healthcare

In a significant development in the realm of patient privacy rights, a group of 24 attorneys general, led by New York Attorney General Letitia James and California Attorney General Rob Bonta, submitted a comment letter on June 16, endorsing expanded federal protections for patients’ reproductive health information. Their support is a response to amendments proposed by the Biden administration to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Privacy Rule in April.

“While anti-choice state legislatures across the nation are stripping away our reproductive freedom and seeking access to health care data, it is imperative that we take every measure to safeguard Americans’ privacy,” Attorney General James stated in the press release.

The coalition’s support has arisen in a climate of uncertainty following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. This decision has incited fear and apprehension among those involved in reproductive healthcare provision and created a need for robust privacy protections.

To provide a nuanced understanding of the subject, it’s important to delve into the proposed amendments to HIPAA Privacy Rule by the Biden Administration. These amendments aim to protect patients and providers from prosecution related to the provision of reproductive healthcare. Specifically, the amendments propose making it unlawful to use or disclose protected health information (PHI) for any investigation into a patient seeking reproductive care in a state where abortion is legal or if the patient is seeking care that is protected under federal law.

In addition, the proposed rule mandates covered entities to obtain a signed attestation that a request for PHI is not related to any of the prohibited purposes. Such stipulations apply to health oversight activities, disclosures to coroners and medical examiners, law enforcement purposes, and judicial and administrative proceedings. This provision reinforces the role of trust in the patient-provider relationship and aims to shield patients from any misuse of their private medical records.

As the legal landscape surrounding abortion rights becomes more convoluted, the attorneys general in the coalition argue that these proposed amendments are critically important. They call on HHS to act swiftly in adopting these measures, emphasizing that the enhanced privacy protections will help shield reproductive health data from being wrongfully accessed and exploited. Moreover, in the spirit of broadening the access to reproductive care, the attorneys general further suggest expanding the definition of “reproductive health” to include aspects like sexual identity, sexual activity, and family planning.

Beyond supporting these amendments, the coalition of attorneys general also advocates for the creation of a nationally available online platform, aiming to provide accurate information on reproductive care and privacy rights, coupled with a public awareness campaign to promote this platform. The attorneys general believe such a measure would help patients navigate the complexities of the legal environment around reproductive care.

As the dynamics of reproductive healthcare continue to evolve in the wake of landmark court rulings and legislative actions, these 24 attorneys general’s efforts mark a significant step towards safeguarding patients’ rights and privacy. They serve as a poignant reminder of the need for stronger privacy protections amid a rapidly changing landscape. With the deadline for public comment on the proposed HIPAA amendments quickly approaching, the attorneys general’s move serves as a call to action for others to voice their thoughts and ensure that these crucial protections are put into effect. The robust involvement of stakeholders — from patients and providers to policymakers and the public — will be instrumental in shaping a more secure and inclusive future for reproductive healthcare.