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Sunday, March 12, 2006

Privacy and Prayer Requests

We've had more than our usual share of employees in the hospital or out on leave in recent days. This has led a few of you to wonder why we don't share this type of information in the form of prayer requests with the workforce. After all, aren't we Christians? Don't we in HR believe that prayer works? Apparently we once shared this type of information, but the laws of the land and the expectations of sick or injured individuals have changed with it. Here's the new landscape.

Around 2000 the Health Insurance Portability and Privacy Act (HIPPA) passed through Congress. Within weeks every HR department, hospital, doctor's office, or any facility that handled private medical information had to put in safeguards to make sure personal information did not become publicly known. This is why you can go to a hospital and ask for "Joe Blow's room number" and get it, but you can't go to a hospital and ask if Joe Blow is a patient (they won't tell you). I can ask United Healthcare how much money we've spent in cancer treatments this year, but I can't ask them (and wouldn't, by the way) who among our workforce has or has had cancer. As an employer, we can require employees who are seeking a leave of absence to provide medical certification from their doctor as to why they are being treated. However, if the employee is not asking for a leave and is only requesting PTO then we can't (and wouldn't) ask the employee why they are taking off work or what medical condition they have.

This brings us to the employee expectation issue. Employees are more aware as a group than ever before that they don't have to answer such questions. Often times an employee will take PTO rather than FMLA leave for short medical-related absences rather than disclose a medical condition. Others will exhaust their PTO completely before disclosing a medical condition and then request FMLA after the fact. In such cases, the company does not always get complete information.

I myself did this in 2001. I was working for someone for whom, I had been warned, surgeries and illnesses were a sign of weakness. I had been with the company four months and discovered that I had to have arthroscopic knee surgery. I scheduled two vacation days (as we called them in '01) on a Thursday and Friday. I had the surgery 8:00 a.m. on Thursday and was home by 3:00 that afternoon. I was on my back that evening and all day Friday; walked on crutches Saturday and Sunday, and Sunday evening took a triple dose of pain medication and put my crutches in the closet. I reported to work on Monday with a slight limp that I attributed to weekend gardening and never told anyone (until now). I hadn't mentioned it because, frankly, is really isn't anyone's business. Keep this in mind when I tell you, then, that an employee undergoing chemotherapy may covet our prayers but does not want the phone calls, letters, cards, and workplace conversation about them that goes with it.

In our church one variation of the liturgy asks us to pray for "all who are sick, all who suffer, and all who will die today". Maybe we should do the same for members of our Nelson family whose struggles are known only to themselves, God and a handful of close friends and family. If that's the way they want it, then we should afford them that respect.


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