Biden administration takes new steps to safeguard patient privacy in wake of abortion pill ruling

The Biden administration announced new actions on Wednesday focused on safeguarding patient privacy following the ruling by a federal judge in Texas putting a hold on a common abortion pill.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is issuing a new rule that would prevent an individual’s information from being disclosed “to investigate, sue, or prosecute an individual, a health care provider, or a loved one because that person sought, obtained, provided, or facilitated legal reproductive health care, including abortion.”

It aims to strengthen protection under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly known as HIPAA. HHS also plans to issue guidance to doctors and medical providers that HIPAA’s privacy protections also apply to patients’ electronic health information.

The Department of Education will also issue guidance to more than 20,000 school officials to remind them of their obligations to protect student privacy under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and the Federal Communications Commission will launch a new guide for consumers on best practices for protecting their personal data on phones.

Vice President Harris, who has been spearheading the administration’s response to the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade last year, will announce the new actions at the third meeting of the interagency task force on reproductive health care access on Wednesday afternoon.

“Efforts to protect sensitive health information, including related to reproductive health care, have taken on renewed importance, as states seek to penalize and criminalize health care providers and interfere in deeply personal medical decisions,” according to a fact sheet released by the White House.

The steps announced on Wednesday build on the White House’s work to defend the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) ability to approve of access to medication abortion. President Biden in January directed the HHS Secretary to ensure that mifepristone, a pill used in medication abortions, is as widely accessible as possible in the wake of the Roe decision.

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk issued a ruling that invalidated the FDA’s decades-old approval of mifepristone. Biden on Tuesday called the ruling “completely out of bounds.”

The Justice Department has appealed, asking to put a hold on the ruling by Kacsmaryk. It is also reviewing another ruling from a federal judge in Washington state that prevents the FDA from “altering the status quo and rights as it relates to the availability of Mifepristone” in 17 states and Washington, D.C.

The conflicting rulings could lead to a higher court decision, and the fight could reach the Supreme Court.


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