(WASHINGTON) — With Americans’ access to the abortion pill mifepristone still in limbo, Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday convened a meeting of a White House task force on reproductive health care during which Cabinet officials expanded on a new way they intend to protect a person’s privacy when it comes to abortion access.
The meeting fell just hours after the Department of Health and Human Services announced it had drafted a new federal rule intended to make clear to doctors and other medical professionals that divulging details of a person getting an abortion violates the privacy law HIPAA.
Harris explained that an exception written into the 1996 HIPAA law provides that if law enforcement officials needed information in pursuit of a criminal matter, they could access a person’s medical records after getting a court order.
The new rule is in response to several red states passing laws, in the wake of the Supreme Court overruling Roe v. Wade, which abortion rights advocates warn are intended to criminalize health care providers and women who seek abortions, even in states where the procedure is legal.
This proposed change, then, is aimed at blunting state-run investigations into women traveling for abortions, so it would essentially provide cover for doctors where abortion is legal to not provide records in investigations stemming from states where the procedure is not.
“I have met with and talked with doctors who are in fear of losing their license or being prosecuted, and of this situation actually having an impact on the relationships of trust that they have with their patients. This indeed is a health care crisis in America,” Harris said.
“Since the Dobbs’ decision, in particular, many states have proposed and passed laws that are now going to criminalize health care providers for providing reproductive health care,” she continued. “It’s going to be a crime, which means that it is very likely if law enforcement requests your personal and private medical records, they may be entitled to receive them.”
Medical providers and doctors would not be forced to comply with those investigations if the proposed rule is finalized, officials said.
Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and Attorney General Merrick Garland flanked Harris for the discussion, to expand on what the change means.
Becerra, like Harris, said his office has already heard “first-hand” from women that their health care providers are being targeted by hostile actors trying to weaponize private information surrounding abortion care.
“And so we want to make sure we do everything we can to ensure patient privacy, bolster trust between individuals and their health care providers and enable individuals to obtain high-quality appropriate health care,” he said.
Garland also made his first public comments about the mifepristone ruling by the federal judge in Texas, since the Justice Department appealed it, saying the nation’s top law enforcement agency “strongly disagrees with the court’s unprecedented decision.”
An example of the rule’s application might be Idaho prosecutors investigating whether an adult helped drive a minor out of state for an abortion, which would violate the state’s “abortion trafficking” law. Doctors who assisted the patient out-of-state would not be required to comply with Idaho’s investigation.
“I have met with doctors across the country who have shared their stories,” said Melanie Fontes Rainer, director of the civil rights office within Health and Human Services, which drafted the rule. “These providers have expressed fear, anger, and sadness that they or their patients may end up in jail for providing or obtaining evidence-based and medically appropriate care.”
According to a senior administration official, the concern is that some doctors — particularly with smaller practices — might be fearful when faced with subpoenas. This rule reminds them that the federal law prohibiting them from sharing sensitive medical information includes reproductive health care.
Following a 60-day public comment period, the rule will need to be finalized before taking effect.
ABC News Anne Flaherty and Ben Gittleson contributed to this report.
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