A new federal law limiting access to patient information could make it harder for chaplains to minister in hospitals.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, which went into effect April 14, is designed to protect the privacy of individuals by ensuring that sensitive medical records are not released to marketing firms, financial institutions and employers.

So how does the law affect clergy?

Under the new regulations, hospitals are no longer permitted to reveal who enters their doors without the patient’s express permission.

Say your neighbor is taken by ambulance to a nearby hospital, and you want to see how he or she is doing. Unless you are specifically named as a contact or given a secret code number, the hospital won’t give you any information about your neighbor’s room number, or even confirm that the person has been admitted, according to a report in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

Forget about sending flowers.

Without the same code or written authorization, even flowers will be returned, Cherie Diefenbach, manager of information and technical systems for Englewood Community Hospital, told the Florida newspaper.

“The mail is sent back,” she said. “The clergy are sent back. General visitors are sent back.”

Ministers will get a slight break, as long as they stay within their own denominations or faiths, according to the Association of Professional Chaplains.

For example, a Methodist minister will have limited access to patients who list their religious preference as Methodist. But it is unclear who has access to folks who describe their affiliation in more generic terms such as Protestant or Christian.

The National Association of Catholic Chaplains recommends that chaplains and students in training for chaplaincy or pastoral care seek formal recognition from their healthcare institutes as a “provider” of health services. The organization says that status exempts clergy from certain regulations.

The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act first passed in 1996, but it has been implemented only in sections due to its complexity and scope, according to the Herald-Tribune.

Jodi Mathews is news writer for EthicsDaily.com

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