Pharmacies Stop Giving Medical Information to Marketer

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Customer complaints about privacy violations have forced supermarket chain Giant Food Inc. and pharmacy CVS Corp. to discontinue providing medical information to a marketing firm that tracks customers who fail to refill their prescriptions.

In back-to-back announcements last week, Giant, Landover, MD, and CVS, Woonsocket, RI, halted programs with database marketer Elensys Inc., Woburn, MA, which was sending personalized letters on pharmacy stationery and pharmaceutical company promotions to customers who had let their prescriptions expire.

The move followed a flood of complaints after published reports detailed Elensys' arrangement with Giant, CVS and thousands of other pharmacies nationwide to provide customer information for mailings.

"The agreement we signed with the company had extensive safeguards to protect our customers' privacy,'' Giant said in a letter published last week as a paid newspaper advertisement. "However, customers have told us their concerns about confidentiality. So, effective immediately, we have stopped the program.''

CVS originally planned to set up a toll-free number for customers to opt out of the program before deciding to do away with it.

Pharmacies often hire outside marketing companies to handle customer service, including the mailing of refill reminders, an industry association said. However, sharing customer databases with drug companies for solicitations is not an accepted practice.

Customers assume that medical information given to doctors and pharmacists will remain confidential, and a violation of that confidentiality is deemed a breach of medical ethics, said Dr. George Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah) is sponsoring a bill in Congress -- the Medical Information Act -- that would limit the sharing of medical information, and Virginia legislators have passed versions of a bill that would curb the release of confidential prescription information by pharmacies, insurance companies and others with access.

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