New health care privacy law does not pertain to Missouri churches
By Bob Baysinger
August 26, 2003
KANSAS CITY – A new federal law establishing guidelines for health care privacy does not pertain to Missouri Baptist churches, according to Mike Whitehead, a Kansas City attorney and member of First Baptist, Raytown.
"Rumors have circulated that it is now unlawful for churches to list the names of hospitalized members in church bulletins or on church prayer lists," Whitehead said. "It is not illegal under this new rule for churches to list the names of hospitalized members in a church bulletin or prayer list.
"The law applies to health care providers, not to churches. Even if someone makes the claim that the law applies to health information that comes into the possession of churches, there are strong religious liberty reasons why Baptists would not concede that Congress has the power to prohibit believers from sharing prayer requests."
The law, which took effect April 14, is called the Health Insurance and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
The law specifies that a hospital can no longer notify the church or pastor when a member is a patient. Whitehead contends, however, that the information can be obtained at the initiative of the pastor.
"Some legal advisers are suggesting that churches should avoid sharing such private information without consent of the patient, just to be safe," Whitehead said. "They say there may be a risk of invasion of privacy – even unintentional – because of the complexity of the law when a church publishes information on their Web sites, in church bulletins or newsletters concerning the health condition of employees or church members."
Whitehead suggests there are two ways to reduce the risk.
- Express consent. No information is published by the church in any form without the person’s signed consent.
- Implied consent. Occasionally published notices in the church media advising members that prayer lists are compiled by the church that contain the names and medical conditions of persons who are known to be hospitalized or ill.
"The implied consent notification should advise members who do not want their name and medical condition published to inform the pastor or church office," Whitehead said. "A roster might be maintained of the persons who object to being included on these lists."
Whitehead said the notice should be published every three to six months. The attorney suggests a notice say:
"A new federal law greatly restricts the disclosure of patient information by hospitals. As a result, the pastoral staff and church office may not know that a member of the church has been admitted to the hospital. If you are hospitalized and would like to notify the pastor, it is important that you (or a family member) inform the church office as soon as possible. Call us at (church phone number). Remember, hospitals no longer can provide this information to us."
"Prayer lists are compiled by various church ministries that may contain the names and medical conditions of persons who are known to be hospitalized or ill. This information is often shared to facilitate prayer, visits and other ministry. Persons who do not want their names or medical condition listed or shared in this manner should inform the pastor or church office."