1. Becker, Sharon RN

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HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, is a Federal law imposed on all health care organizations, including hospitals, physicians' offices, nursing homes and other providers, as well as health plans and clearing houses. It became effective on April 14, 2003. Designed to ensure that Protected Health Information (PHI) is properly handled, HIPAA governs privacy and security issues regarding patient information.


So what does this mean to congregational health ministry teams and parish nurses in churches? At this point, congregations are not considered a covered entity, so they are not bound by these regulations because charges are not rendered for the services provided by parish nurses and others on the health team in the congregation. However, it does mean that medical records of all types should be kept confidentially locked and secure to protect the privacy of those receiving services.


Sharing a patient's medical information with other parties is permissible for the purposes of treatment (usually to physicians), payment (to insurance companies or third-party payers) or for other proscribed purposes, such as quality review or teaching students in a hospital setting. In the congregation, for example, it would be permissible to contact someone's physician (over the phone or via FAX) with a screening result or pertinent information from a home visit because this is important to the person's ongoing care and treatment. However, the person should be informed prior to disclosing the information. HIPPA does not permit sharing patient information for the sake of conversation, gossip, or prayer. No one should be added to a prayer list without written permission from the person.


HIPAA also affects communication between hospitals, clergy and congregations. Previously many hospitals notified local congregations when a member was admitted to the hospital. Now, they cannot do so without written permission from the patient. To be proactive, tell your members that they need to either inform you prior to an elective hospitalization or indicate preference of notification (with signature) on their admission papers.