HIPAA rule allowing patient info to be used for fundraising solicitation comes under fire

A little known clause in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) that allows hospitals to use patient information for fundraising activities has many patients at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle upset with the facility. 

The rule states that hospitals can use a patient's name, address, date of hospital service, gender, age and insurance status--but not diagnosis or treatment information--when soliciting for charity, as was the case with patient Steve Finn, reports the Seattle Times. After an accident landed him in the emergency room at UW, Finn was contacted by a hospital representative about making a donation to the facility, unaware that such departments were privy to his patient information in the first place. He wasn't happy with the discovery, especially considering HIPAA's barring of the same information for commercial use. 

"Excuse me, but raising millions of dollars to support UW--a commercial enterprise hiding behind a not-for profit mask--certainly sounds like a bending of the rules to suit a purpose," Finn said, according to the article. "You just feel as though your privacy is being violated." 

So far in 2010, 150 patients out of 6,000 solicited have opted out appearing on the hospital's fundraising list, although according to the Times, the process for doing so is not an easy one. Instead of being able to simply check a "yes" or "no" box regarding the use of personal information, patients must write a letter to UW's privacy office requesting as much. Most patients don't realize this, however, because such information is buried in a multi-page document given to patients upon arrival at the hospital entitled "Joint Notice of Privacy practices of UW Medicine and Certain Other Providers." 

Tina Mankowski, a spokeswoman for the hospital told the Times that this is the first year she has received any complaints about the policy and defended its spirit. 

"Fundraising is an important part of healthcare," she said. "We are not selling any goods or services--we are a nonprofit raising funds." 

To learn more:
- read this Seattle Times piece