The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) yesterday published a new Web-based interactive decision tool designed to assist emergency preparedness and recovery planners in determining how to access and use health information about persons with disabilities consistent with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) Privacy Rule.

"Being able to coordinate health information appropriately and in advance will help save lives," HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt said. "This new tool strengthens America's ability to better prepare for emergencies such as manmade and natural disasters."

The tool will guide emergency preparedness and recovery planners through a series of questions regarding how the HIPAA Privacy Rule applies to a particular disclosure. By helping users focus on the source of the information being disclosed, to whom it is being disclosed, and for what purpose, users will better meet the needs of the elderly or persons with disabilities in the event of an evacuation.

While the tool's initial purpose focused on emergency planning for persons with disabilities, it is applicable to most emergency planning efforts. The intended audiences include covered entities as well as emergency preparedness and recovery planners at the local, state and federal levels.

"I am pleased that we are providing state and local planners with such a timely, comprehensive and effective tool to enable them to get answers to HIPAA Privacy Rule questions tailored to their specific needs," said Winston Wilkinson, director of the HHS Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which is responsible for the HIPAA Privacy Rule.

The tool was demonstrated for the first time last week at a joint HHS/Department of Homeland Security "Working Conference on Emergency Management and Individuals with Disabilities and the Elderly" in Washington, D.C.