Department of Health & Human Services Issues HIPAA Guidance with Regard to Same-Sex Couples

In certain circumstances, HIPAA allows health care providers to share information about a patient’s care with certain family members, including a patient’s spouse.  In the past, persons living in same-sex couples were not eligible to share in that information.  However, in June of 2013, the United States Supreme Court held as unconstitutional the portion of the Federal Defense of Marriage Act recognizing only opposite-sex marriages.

On September 17, 2014, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in United States v. Windsor, the Department of Health & Human Services clarified its position on a health care provider’s ability to release a patient’s health information to persons living in same-sex couples.  HHS sets forth that the term “spouse” includes individuals who are in a legally valid same-sex marriage sanctioned by a state, territory, or foreign jurisdiction.  The term “spouse” apply to individuals who are legally married, whether or not they live or receive services in a jurisdiction that would recognize their marriage.

This clarification allows health care providers to share a patient’s protected health information with legally married same-sex spouses, regardless of whether they live in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage.  Note, however, that many states have in place additional patient privacy laws that must continue to be observed.

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