If you have a loved one in substance abuse treatment, you may become frustrated when your calls to the treatment center are met with little to no information about your loved one.
What you may not know is that confidentiality and consent laws govern what the facility is allowed to divulge about its clients. The level of consent is determined not by the treatment center, but by HIPAA laws and by the client. Here’s how it all works.
HIPAA and the Authorization for Release of Information Form
Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) privacy laws were put in place to protect the information of clients seeking substance abuse treatment. These laws ensure that a client’s information is handled with privacy by all companies involved in the health care process.
In addition to protecting the exchange of information between companies, HIPAA requires that clients be able to determine how much the treatment facility can share about their treatment. To do so, clients fill out and sign an Authorization for Release of Information, which typically remains valid for one year. Clients can revoke the form at any time and set a shorter expiration date if desired.
The purpose of the laws is to help people feel safe when seeking treatment for substance abuse, knowing that their medical records are kept private. For a full description of the laws, see the links below.
Authorization forms differ slightly between facilities and states, but typically direct the client to allow release of the following information:
- their presence in treatment
- their participation and progress during their stay
- their history of substance use
- their treatment diagnosis and results
- recommendations for aftercare
- all medical and therapeutic records
The client determines not only who may access any of the above information but also which information is released. For example, the client may want their spouse to have access to treatment data but not their parents (or vice versa). They may allow a facility to confirm for a loved one whether the client is still in treatment—or they may not. They may allow a family member to know how they’re doing in treatment but not what their plan is for aftercare.
Whatever the client decides cannot be overruled except by the client themselves. This means that when a mother or husband calls to find out if their loved one is still in treatment, the facility may not be allowed to tell them.
What Confidentiality Laws Mean for Loved Ones
The point here is that family ties do NOT override confidentiality (there are exceptions for minors). Furthermore, facilities are not allowed to tell you whether you are included in the client’s consent form. Therefore, when you call a facility, you won’t know how much information they are allowed to give you. As a general rule, if a facility is not answering your questions about a client, it’s because the client has not authorized that information to be given to you.
Remember as well that most facilities have an initial “blackout period” lasting several days, during which the client is not allowed to have any contact with the outside world. The blackout period helps the client get settled into treatment without distraction—and gives loved ones a break as well.
While family and friends may feel hurt when their loved one chooses to cut them out of the loop, it’s important to recognize that the client may need the time and distance away from family. Sometimes clients need to sort out their relationship with themselves before involving family. Sometimes the client may perceive family relationships as toxic, manipulative, or codependent; they might want to take the chance to carve out a more independent path.
What To Do If a Loved One Cuts You Off
First, remember that nothing you say or do will convince a facility to break confidentiality laws.
Second, if you feel like you’ve been inadvertently left off of your loved one’s consent form, you may ask the facility to check with the client. If you don’t hear anything, take that as a good sign. Your loved one is focusing on recovering from a deadly disease and rebuilding their life.
Third, consider seeking therapy. Addiction is a family disease, and when we get so caught up in someone else’s well-being, we tend to neglect our own. A therapist can help you find a healthy detachment from your loved one and both set and accept boundaries.
Finally, in much more expansive sense, try to remember that we are each on our own path. It’s terrible to see someone you love suffer or to feel like they are taking out their pain on you. Accept that distance in the relationship might continue. Use that time to work on yourself.
If you or a loved one are seeking help for substance abuse, please consider contacting Mountain Laurel Recovery Center. We provide the space your loved one needs to heal, and we also value the role of family and offer programs to help families reconnect with each other.
For Further Reading:
Summary of the HIPAA Privacy Rule.
Further discussion of the Privacy Rule.
Summary of HIPAA Part 2.
HIPAA Part 2 in full.