MEDICAL PRIVACY: CVS Reverses Policy On Drug Mailings
Just one day after Woonsocket, RI-based CVS "vowed to continue" using a marketing firm to send prescription reminders and education materials to pharmacy customers, the chain backed off, "[p]rompted by a rash of customer complaints," the Providence Journal-Bulletin reports. CVS, one of the nation's largest drug store chains with 3,888 stores in 24 states, had received 200 phone calls from Washington, D.C.-area customers alone since the Washington Post broke the direct-mail marketing story Sunday (Jones, Providence Journal-Bulletin, 2/19). The other large chain named in the story, Giant Food Inc. pharmacies, suspended its mailing program yesterday, citing a similar customer outcry.
Letter Of Explanation
CVS today mirrored Giant's tactic of issuing newspaper ads in the form of a letter to the public. The advertisement, bearing the heading "At CVS, We Safeguard Your Privacy As Well As Your Health," and appearing in today's Washington Post says, "CVS never sold, and would never sell, patient information to anyone." The letter refers to Elensys, the Massachusetts firm hired to conduct the mailings, as "an outside mailing firm," emphatically stating "CVS never employed a database marketing company to market to our customers." The Washington Post reports that CVS spokesperson Frederick McGrail said, "there was 'confusion and misunderstanding' among customers" (O'Harrow, Jr., 2/19). He said, "We don't want to be doing something that customers are concerned about, on the other hand, we strongly believe that there's a very real benefit for certain customers to getting this kind of information, and it's regrettable that ... we've got to suspend" (Blanton, Boston Globe, 2/19).
Don't Look, Just Tell
The Baltimore Sun reports that another CVS statement said, "The confusion stemmed from the use of an outside firm to assist in the administrative mailing function. The company never had access to patient records of medical history." Elensys issued a written statement indicating the mailings were not "marketing programs from Elensys" but rather "education and information programs initiated and governed by the pharmacy chain" (Salganik, 2/19). CVS' McGrail said, "Obviously, the letters reference the (patient's) condition, but this company was told they shouldn't be looking at these letters and they didn't." He added, "The file of names and addresses came back to us when they were done" (Thomas, Richmond Times-Dispatch, 2/19).
Pharmaceutical Companies' Role
The Washington Post article reports that Elensys President Daniel Rubin "has said drug companies subsidize the mailings by paying pharmacies for the right to send mailings to customers." He also "said drug companies never get access to pharmacy files." Rubin did not return the Post's telephone calls yesterday (2/19). Today's Boston Globe notes "pharmaceutical companies have become more aggressive in marketing drugs directly to customers." Health plans "are also more receptive to solicitations to physicians under growing pressure to put a lid on spiraling drug costs." Beverly Woodward, a medical ethicist at Brandeis University, "said pharmaceutical companies often provide incentives to pharmacies to promote their drugs." She said, "CVS may back down temporarily but there's a huge commercial motivation to continue to do this sort of thing and to extract patient data from pharmacy records. Most people, if they go to a chain, can be almost certain their information is being shared" (Blanton, 2/19). In addition, Rhode Island Director of Health Dr. Patricia Nolan expressed concern that letters encouraging patients to ask about new medications might "disrupt" the "interaction between doctors and patients." She said pharmaceutical marketing programs can be "extraordinarily powerful and sometimes dangerous" (Providence Journal-Bulletin, 2/19).
For The Record
The Washington Post today printed a "correction" concerning an editorial that ran in the paper yesterday. The correction states that yesterday's editorial "incorrectly stated" that Giant and CVS had passed names of customers to pharmaceutical companies, when: "In fact, Giant and CVS sent data to a marketing company to track and write to pharmacy customers ... but that company was under contract not to release the personal data to drug companies or others."