New Federal Policy Will Allow Healthcare Fundraisers to Use Patient Data

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The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recently issued new regulations aimed at protecting the privacy of medical patients without limiting the fundraising abilities of nonprofit healthcare providers. The rules came after a period of intense discussion with nonprofit groups, led by the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy.

The federal agency had originally proposed requiring healthcare providers to obtain patients' permission before using their names for solicitation purposes; otherwise, providers would have to mail to the entire community. But after healthcare nonprofits "sent in comments, met with officials and participated in fact-finding conversations," the agency decided to permit healthcare organizations to use a patient's name, address, gender, age and hospital-stay dates to make charitable appeals, said AHP president William McGinley.

However, the new regulations require that patients be given an easy way to remove themselves from the healthcare provider's fundraising database. They also forbid healthcare providers from selling this information or sharing it with other charities or commercial organizations.

The original proposals would have limited nonprofits' ability to target those most likely to donate, and "this would increase our costs dramatically," McGinley said. He added that the original proposals were the result of "a lack of understanding on how healthcare providers raise funds.

"We are supportive of maintaining medical record confidentiality," he said. "Medical record information per se is not of interest to us. What we are interested in is access to the name, address and phone number of grateful patients we have served. We don't sell or share our lists of donors or prospects."

McGinley said outreach is part of nonprofits' mission.

"We have an obligation to fundraise and to provide educational programs to change health behavior in the community," he said.

The Association of Healthcare Philanthropy represents 3,000 healthcare fundraisers either employed by the provider or working for an institutionally related foundation. Association members raised $6 billion last year.

The association took the lead on this issue because it could not get other organizations to take a more active role, McGinley said. In some cases, organizations said it "wasn't in their bailiwick"; in others, the organizations said they would get a larger share of donations if the fundraising abilities of healthcare providers were limited, he said.

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