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Obama Waives Patient Privacy After Orlando Terror Attack

(Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images)

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Phillip Stucky Political Reporter

President Barack Obama changed the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) Sunday to waive patient privacy in the aftermath of the Orlando, Fla., terrorist attack.

Local officials at Orlando Regional Medical Center petitioned Obama to allow them to talk to friends and families of the victims of the shooting at Pulse nightclub that left 50 dead, including the shooter, Omar Mateen. In order to legally enable the waiver, Obama used a revision of section 1135 of the Social Security Act that allows hospital staff to talk directly to friends and families of patients without a written waiver from the patient.

The legal requirements in the code included an official state of emergency declaration from the president, along with a declaration of a state of harm to personal well-being from the Secretary of Health and Human Services. Both of those requirements were met Sunday.

The waiver allows doctors and nurses to discuss urgent care with friends and families, but it also allows sharing of that information with anyone, even people who the patient has listed as someone who he or she explicitly doesn’t want to have that information. According to the Department of Health and Human Services website, the waiver says the regulations also change “the patient’s right to request privacy restrictions (45 CFR 164.522(a)).” Essentially, the patient, whether incapacitated or not, has limited to no legal say in who obtains their sensitive medical information.

The revision to the Social Security Act has not been previously used by the Obama administration, and was only used once by former President George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina response effort. The revision was enacted shortly after the World Trade Center attack in 2001.

The waiver is only inclusive of the Orlando area, and only for up to 72 hours as doctors rushed to operate on 42 of the wounded Monday.

This is not the first time Obama has changed HIPAA regulations. The president approved regulations that allow healthcare providers to share information related to mental health with agencies conducting background checks for gun purchases in January. Republican Rep. [crscore]Marsha Blackburn[/crscore] led a protest of the revision, stating it was easy for the government to go too far in determining what mental health entailed.

Orlando-area hospitals, including Florida Hospital and the Orlando Department of Veterans Affairs facility faced HIPAA complaints and investigations last summer for losing sensitive patient data, and for failing to obtain waivers before sharing information with families of patients. Orlando Regional Medical Center, the center which requested the waiver Sunday, was not named in the complaints.

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