Democratic senators are urging the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to strengthen federal health privacy protections for abortion patients.
The United States must do more to protect the privacy of abortion patients in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which allows states more latitude to decide abortion access, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and 29 of her colleagues told HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra in a Sept. 13 letter.
Some states have moved quickly to restrict or outlaw abortion, making it a crime to seek the procedure or provide it.
“To protect patients, and their providers, from having their health information weaponized against them, we urge you to take immediate action to strengthen education on and enforcement of federal health privacy protections and to initiate the rulemaking process to augment privacy protections under Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) regulations,” the letter said.
“Stakeholders have told us about providers who have felt uncertain about whether they must turn over personal health information to state and law enforcement officials, including cases where providers believed they had to turn over information when doing so is only permitted—but not required—under the HIPAA Privacy Rule,” the Democratic senators said.
The HHS should update the HIPAA Privacy Rule to “broadly restrict regulated entities from sharing individuals’ reproductive health information without explicit consent, particularly for law enforcement, civil, or criminal proceedings premised on the provision of abortion care,” the letter said.
The Democratic senators penned their letter on the same day Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) introduced legislation to make it illegal in most cases for women to receive an abortion in the United States after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
Becerra has made clear he, like President Joe Biden, backs abortion access. But whether he will agree to draft new rules to address the senators’ HIPAA concerns is uncertain.
In a statement Becerra issued in response to Graham’s bill, he pointed to guidance the HHS Office for Civil Rights issued June 29, designed to clarify existing HIPAA protections for abortion patients.
That guidance explains “the extent to which federal law and regulations protect individuals’ private medical information when seeking abortion,” including when using apps on cellphones, Becerra said.
“The Biden-Harris administration will vigorously advance and protect women’s rights to essential healthcare. We won’t hesitate to enforce the law,” Becerra said.
The Democratic senators in their letter commended HHS for the June 29 guidance but said it did not go far enough to protect health information related to abortions.
“Our nation faces a crisis in access to reproductive health services, and some states have already begun to investigate and punish women seeking abortion care. It is critical that HHS take all available action to fully protect women’s privacy and their ability to safely and confidentially seek medical care,” the letter said.
Becerra did not reply to a request for comment.