The Biden administration on Wednesday proposed new health privacy protections to prevent protected health information from being used to investigate or sue people who facilitate abortions.
The changes, put forth by the Department of Health and Human Services' Office for Civil Rights, would bolster reproductive health care privacy.
Vice President Kamala Harris announced the new language, aimed at strengthening existing privacy rule protections under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, during a meeting with a task force on access to reproductive health care Wednesday afternoon. She was joined by Attorney General Merrick Garland and Health Secretary Xavier Becerra.
“We are looking at a situation in our country where 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,” Harris said.
She said an exception in HIPAA that allows law enforcement to access medical records posed a "real risk of damage to and attacks on patient privacy" in light of efforts in some states to criminalize health care providers and others who assist in providing abortions.
The meeting came after the latest setback to proponents of abortion rights: A federal judge in Texas appointed by former President Donald Trump issued a ruling last week that would suspend the Food and Drug Administration's longtime approval of the abortion drug mifepristone. The Biden administration filed a request in a federal appeals court Monday to block the ruling.
Before speaking about the administration's medical privacy proposal, Harris blasted the judge's ruling as "attacking the very credibility of the FDA," with sweeping ramifications on the integrity of the country's health care delivery systems.
The HHS proposal centers on barring using or disclosing protected health information that could be used to identify, investigate, prosecute or sue people, health care providers and others involved in seeking or providing abortion care.
“We believe that this rule will assure that doctors, other health care providers and health plans will not be disclosing individuals’ protected health information, including information related to reproductive health care under certain circumstances,” Becerra said on Wednesday.
States like Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas allow lawsuits against people who help facilitate abortions within their borders. Opponents of the laws have raised concerns about how sensitive medical information is disclosed in those situations. Idaho last week became the first state to criminalize assisting with out-of-state abortions.
In a document outlining its proposal, the White House said taking steps to protect sensitive health information had taken on “renewed importance” in light of such efforts.
The proposed rule would continue to allow a regulated entity such as a health insurance company or provider to use or disclose protected health information "for permissible purposes" under the privacy rule, a senior administration official said.
But such a request would not be allowed when its primary purpose is to investigate or impose liability on any person for seeking or facilitating lawful reproductive care.