Many years ago, our government passed a set of laws (known by the acronym HIPAA) that had many salutary benefits for health insurance and its portability for Americans. As part of those laws, privacy regulations were strengthened to protect the patient, also in general a good thing. However, a by-product of those privacy restrictions has been the inability of members of the clergy to get timely information on members of their communities. Using the rationale of HIPAA, hospitals in particular have sought to protect themselves from legal action by restricting the means by which information about patients may be shared with clergy.
For example, there was a time many years ago when we would receive a phone call from a volunteer at Alexandria Hospital (before Inova) informing us of a hospitalization. When HIPAA was instituted, we had to designate clergy and/or chaplains who had access to the roster of patients who had indicated a religious preference. Without going into detail, as matters stand now in the Inova system (and, I imagine elsewhere), unless a series of intake questions are answered in particular ways, a hospital patient will not be listed on the religious population roster. If those questions are not asked (especially in emergency admissions) or not answered in specific language, a chaplain or clergy member will not know if the patient is hospitalized unless the patient or family notifies the faith community directly.
Adding to the dilemma of knowing when someone is hospitalized is knowing where the hospitalization takes place. The Inova system has developed specialty departments in some hospitals and eliminated them in others. An admission to Alexandria may wind up in Fair Oaks, Mount Vernon or Fairfax, depending on the condition, age of the patient or combination of conditions. Even if information was provided regarding religious preferences, it may take a day or more before that information finds its way to the visiting chaplain. And, as you know, hospital stays are most frequently less than three days, making the likelihood of “discovering” a Jewish patient small.
If you read this far, you are probably wondering just what we are supposed to do about it! Here is what I say to people who are facing hospitalizations: the synagogue does not have to be your first call when news occurs, but please be proactive in letting us know where you are or your family member is and when and whether visits from our community are welcome.
I do not foresee this situation changing. If anything, I think legal skittishness and cost considerations will further limit the health care industry’s willingness to make information available to the faith community, even as they claim we are integral members of the caregiving team. So if you can’t meet our first request — stay healthy! — then please meet our second: put us on your contact list.