PATIENT PRIVACY: New Regulations May Cripple Hospital Fundraising
The "common" hospital practice of soliciting donations from former patients is "running up against patients' rights to privacy," the New York Times reports. The Clinton administration has proposed regulations that would limit the use of identifiable patient information for nonmedical purposes such as fund-raising. Final rules on privacy regulations are expected within the next month, but it is "unclear" how the rules will address hospitals' use of patient records for fundraising. HHS officials admit that "they had not considered" how the rules would affect such practices until hospitals began voicing complaints. Hospitals argue that targeting former patients is the "crucial first step toward finding the people who will eventually become big donors." Rick Wade, spokesperson for the American Hospital Association, said, "It just makes sense that former patients are the ones who care the most, so they're the ones who respond most promptly and positively to appeals. And with a third of hospitals now operating in the red ... those contributions are more important than ever." Jannie Fernandez, CEO of the Tucson, Ariz.-based Carondolet Foundation, which raises money for three large hospitals, said, "Practically speaking, the best way for a hospital to acquire donors is by contacting former patients." She noted that the foundation brings in about 1,500 patient responses annually. However, soliciting former patients has stirred some controversy for Fernandez's foundation. In 1994, the Arizona health department investigated one of the foundation's hospitals after a former patient complained about solicitations. Following the investigation, the hospital now asks every patient to sign a form authorizing solicitations, and Fernandez indicated that most patients do sign.
A Sensitive Issue
Zoe Hudson, senior policy analyst at the Georgetown University Health Privacy Project, supports the notion of requesting patients' permission to mail out solicitations. She said, "The issue is that, while for most people a solicitation letter would be no problem, people go to hospitals for very sensitive reasons, and for a woman who got an abortion without telling her husband, for a psychiatric patient, for someone with HIV, just having someone see a letter might raise all kinds of questions." And Beth Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, which runs a hotline for people with privacy complaints, said they have received a few complaints regarding hospital solicitations. Givens added, "I remember one woman who had been in a cancer hospital here in San Diego ... was upset when she got a solicitation asking her to put the hospital in her will." However, Lisa Hillman of the Anne Arundel Medical Center in Annapolis, Md., said it would be "financially crippling" to ban hospitals from using the names and addresses of former patients. She said, "That information's out there, so the alternative would be to buy those same names and numbers from a mailing house, which would charge thousands of dollars for a one-time use. We could never afford it" (Lewin, New York Times, 10/6).