MEDICAL PRIVACY: Giant, CVS Split On Pharmacy Info
"In response to a deluge of complaints, Giant Food Inc. announced it will no longer send prescription information to a Massachusetts marketing company," Woburn-based Elensys, that sends letters to patients reminding them to take their medications and informing them of other drugs available for their conditions, the Washington Post reports (O'Harrow, 2/18). In a full-page ad published today in the Post and other dailies, Giant stated, "The agreement we signed with the company had extensive safeguards to protect our customers' privacy. However, customers have told us their concerns about confidentiality. So, effective immediately, we have stopped the program. The information is being retrieved by Giant so we can assure our customers that their records remain confidential" (ad text, 2/18). The Wall Street Journal reports that CVS Corp., which also contracts with Elensys, "said it will continue and possibly expand its program." CVS spokesperson Fred McGrail said, "We're very comfortable with the fact that there was no violation of patient confidentiality, and we believe these programs can be important to patients."
Over the last six months, CVS contracted with Elensys to mail some 200,000 letters containing reminders or promotional information on various drugs to patients. The Wall Street Journal reports that the drug chain said it "worked with pharmaceutical companies on some of the marketing campaigns, but declined to say whether it received financial compensation for plugging their drugs." The Wall Street Journal notes HMOs "that pay for prescriptions at stores like CVS often encourage use of drugs as an alternative to more expensive forms of care" (Johannes, 2/18).
"One can find all sorts of things about persons from the prescriptions they take," said Steven Brown, director of the Providence, RI, office of the American Civil Liberties Union in an interview with the Providence Journal-Bulletin. "They probably are more revealing than most medical records," he added. Dr. Michael Migliori, president of the Rhode Island Medical Society, "said that recommending certain drugs puts both retail pharmacies and drug stores close to the line of improperly practicing medicine" (Jones, 2/18).
An editorial in today's Washington Post asks: "[W]hat were pharmacists -- next door to doctors in their access to privileged, personal knowledge about people's ailments -- doing marketing such information in the first place? The answer casts some light on the strange tensions being set up everywhere by the financial possibilities -- one might better call them temptations - - of the so-called 'information economy,' in which information about one's customers and their needs has become a vast new resource to be mined. ... Prescription information falls near the line between purely medical data and commercial information, but as the reaction makes clear, that line has been crossed" (2/18).
Here Come The Legislators
State laws already in existence or being drafted in several of CVS' large markets will have direct impact on what pharmacies can and cannot do with patient prescription information. The Rhode Island ACLU's Brown "said release of information by pharmacies might violate the state's Confidentiality of Healthcare Communications and Information Act, which prohibits sharing of information without patient consent." However, Migliori said the law "doesn't specifically name pharmacists" but that his group is "pushing legislation in the General Assembly to include druggists" (Providence Journal-Bulletin, 2/18). Meanwhile, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reports "[l]egislation aimed at protecting the privacy of pharmacy customers is speeding through the [Virginia] General Assembly and appears to be headed for approval. Identical bills that would prohibit the disclosure of prescription records that identify patients by name have passed both chambers of the legislature." State Sen. Joseph Gartlan, Jr. (D), champion of the Senate bill, reportedly became involved "after a pharmacist contacted him to complain about drug companies that pay pharmacies for the names of customers with particular illnesses so they can sell them products related to those conditions" (Kelly, 2/18).