Hospitals will not be able to disclose information without patients' consent.
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Family, friends and clergy will soon find it more difficult to get information about hospital patients under health privacy rules that give patients new power to keep their conditions secret.
Years in the making, the rules represent the first comprehensive federal protections for health privacy. They will prohibit disclosure, without patient permission, of information for reasons unrelated to health care, and there will be new civil and criminal penalties for violators.
For most organizations, they take effect April 14.
In response, hospitals across the country are revising a spectrum of policies, including those governing patient directories that have long provided basic information about conditions to anyone who asks for it.
In some hospitals, the change will mean a delay in releasing information; in others, information once readily available will be shut down.
"If you call about Aunt Sally, they're not going to be able to tell you anything. It will be a big change," said Wilda Stanfield, spokeswoman for Centre Community Hospital in State College, Pa.
The rules will have a particular impact on news organizations that routinely call hospitals to learn the condition of people injured in crimes, car accidents and other noteworthy events. Information will be available only if a patient agrees. If the patient is not available to say yes or no -- say, in emergency surgery -- most hospitals plan to keep information confidential.
Effect on clergy
The rules also will affect members of the clergy, who often check hospital directories for members of their congregations. A delay, some warn, could make it more difficult for patients who receive daily communion and may depend on a visit from a priest or pastor.
"It will certainly reduce the amount of visitation that's done in the hospital," said Lerrill White, the chaplain at St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital in Houston and liaison to the Department of Health and Human Services. In most hospitals the rules should be workable, he said.
Congress directed HHS to write the regulation -- which affects every hospital, doctor's office, insurance company and pharmacy in the country -- after lawmakers were unable to resolve differences over the issue.
Under the new rules, hospitals must inform patients if they have directories and give them the opportunity to opt out. No information may be released if a patient objects.
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