TRENTON — The presidential commission on opioid abuse chaired by Gov. Chris Christie is expected to propose a significant loosening of the 21-year-old federal law protecting patient privacy in cases of opioid overdose, the governor confirmed Monday.
“There’s gotta be a way that we can let parents and loved ones know when people have been reversed with Narcan,” said Christie, speaking to reporters after a speech at Morristown Medical Center to the Partnership for a Drug Free New Jersey.
The governor disclosed that he was in talks with both Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and Department of Justice lawyers about recommending changes to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, better known as HIPAA.
Under that federal law, national standards to protect patient health information were created, including those that preclude physicians from disclosing that a patient had been been treated for a life-threatening overdose to the patient’s spouse, domestic partner or parents.
The flood of opioid overdoses has been met with a commensurate increase in the number of emergency doses of Narcan, an antidote that blocks the effects of opioids from depressing the central nervous and respiratory systems. It has been administered some 25,000 times in New Jersey since 2014, the governor said Monday.
“Overdose is often a cry for help, whether it’s intended to be that or not,” said Christie, adding that when it comes to HIPAA’s restrictions on disclosure, “We’ve got to find a way around it.”
The governor made the disclosure just minutes before departing for Boston, where he’s to give the keynote address at the International Conference on Opioids at Harvard University on Monday evening.
Christie said he was working closely with HHS and Justice Department attorneys to “make sure that whatever recommendations we make to the president are implementable.”
Trump has seen many of his executive orders blocked by the judiciary, including an attempt to starve municipalities of federal funds for non-compliance with federal immigration enforcement efforts to banning travel to the U.S. from Muslim majority nations.
The governor said his entire HIPAA reform proposal would be released in the opioid commission’s interim report, scheduled to be released in the next three weeks.
The move was met with some concern by a top medical ethicist.
Arthur Caplan, the head of medical ethics at NYU Medical School, said he favored protecting patient privacy but said that if had to be compromised to save a life, he leaned toward making the disclosure to healthcare providers, rather than parents.
“I still believe it’s important to leave the disclosure to the individual,” said Caplan. “But there may be a case to be made for doctors or public health authorities to be informed.”
Caplan noted that physicians and health professional, rather than parents or spouses, are in the best position guide a patient towards treatment, given that in many cases, parents or spouses may be suffering from opioid addiction themselves.
“The moral basis on giving up on privacy is that you can provide an intervention,” said Caplan. “The goal here isn’t who knows, it’s who’s going to help the patient.”
Susan K. Livio in Trenton contributed to this report.