Industries & Practices

Health Care Industry


    HIPAA Regulations: Federal Substance Abuse Confidentiality Requirements - Relationship to Other Federal Laws

    As Contained in the HHS HIPAA  Rules


    HHS Description
    Relationship to Other Federal Laws - Federal Substance Abuse Confidentiality Requirements


    The federal confidentiality of substance abuse patient records statute, section 543 of the Public Health Service Act, 42 U.S.C. 290dd-2, and its implementing regulation, 42 CFR Part 2, establish confidentiality requirements for patient records that are maintained in connection with the performance of any federally-assisted specialized alcohol or drug abuse program. Substance abuse programs are generally programs or personnel that provide alcohol or drug abuse treatment, diagnosis, or referral for treatment. The term "federally-assisted" is broadly defined and includes federally conducted or funded programs, federally licensed or certified programs, and programs that are tax exempt. Certain exceptions apply to information held by the Veterans Administration and the Armed Forces.

    There are a number of health care providers that are subject to both these rules and the substance abuse statute and regulations. In most cases, a conflict will not exist between these rules. These privacy rules permit a health care provider to disclose information in a number of situations that are not permitted under the substance abuse regulation. For example, disclosures allowed, without patient authorization, under the privacy rule for law enforcement, judicial and administrative proceedings, public health, health oversight, directory assistance, and as required by other laws would generally be prohibited under the substance abuse statute and regulation. However, because these disclosures are permissive and not mandatory, there is no conflict. An entity would not be in violation of the privacy rules for failing to make these disclosures.

    Similarly, provisions in the substance abuse regulation provide for permissive disclosures in case of medical emergencies, to the FDA, for research activities, for audit and evaluation activities, and in response to certain court orders. Because these are permissive disclosures, programs subject to both the privacy rules and the substance abuse rule are able to comply with both rules even if the privacy rules restrict these types of disclosures. In addition, the privacy rules generally require that an individual be given access to his or her own health information. Under the substance abuse regulation, programs may provide such access, so there is no conflict.

    The substance abuse regulation requires notice to patients of the substance abuse confidentiality requirements and provides for written consent for disclosure. While the privacy rules have requirements that are somewhat different, the program may use notice and authorization forms that include all the elements required by both regulations. The substance abuse rule provides a sample notice and a sample authorization form and states that the use of these forms would be sufficient. While these forms do not satisfy all of the requirements of the privacy regulation, there is no conflict because the substance abuse regulation does not mandate the use of these forms.


    HHS Response to Comments Received
    Relationship to Other Federal Laws - Federal Substance Abuse Confidentiality Requirements


    Comment: Several commenters noted that many health care providers are bound by the federal restrictions governing alcohol and drug abuse records. One commenter noted that the NPRM differed substantially from the substance abuse regulations and would have caused a host of practical problems for covered entities. Another commenter, however, supported the NPRM's analysis that stated that more stringent provisions of the substance abuse provisions would apply. This commenter suggested an even stronger approach of including in the text a provision that would preserve existing federal law. Yet, one comment suggested that the regulation as proposed would confuse providers by making it difficult to determine when they may disclose information to law enforcement because the privacy regulation would permit disclosures that the substance abuse regulations would not.

    Response: We appreciate the need of some covered entities to evaluate the privacy rules in light of federal requirements regarding alcohol and drug abuse records. Therefore, we provide a more detailed analysis in the "Relationship to Other Federal Laws" section of the preamble.

    Comment: Some of these commenters also noted that state laws contain strict confidentiality requirements. A few commenters suggested that HHS reassess the regulations to avoid inconsistencies with state privacy requirements, implying that problems exist because of conflicts between the federal and state laws regarding the confidentiality of substance abuse information.

    Response: As noted in the preamble section discussing preemption, the final rules do not preempt state laws that provide more privacy protections. For a more detailed analysis of the relationship between state law and the privacy rules, see the "Preemption" provisions of the preamble.