From the July 2005 Idaho Observer:
Consumer group says grocer sold private information to drug companies
by Mika Bella
Albertsons is heading to court for allegations of selling confidential medical information to several pharmaceutical companies.
A lawsuit charges Albertsons and its pharmacy units violated the privacy rights of thousands of its customers by illegally using their confidential prescription information to conduct marketing campaigns on behalf of drug companies.
The lawsuit names over a dozen pharmaceutical companies as co-conspirators, including Proctor & Gamble, Aventis, Bristol-Meyers, Squibb and Pfizer.
"We feel this practice violates the spirit and letter of patient confidentiality," says Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (PRC), a consumer group which filed the lawsuit around three years ago in California Superior Court.
Recently, one drug company reached a confidential out-of-court settlement, which includes an agreement to stop such intrusive marketing practices. Albertsons and the other defendants are expected to appear for a court trial, likely late this year.
The complaint states that Albertsonsí pharmacy customers receive direct mail and phone solicitations derived from their medical information provided to the pharmacy for prescriptions. The solicitations appear to be from a local concerned pharmacist, but are allegedly created by a specially-designed database, sold by Albertsons.
Givens explains that the pharmaceutical companies write or approve the solicitations before they are deceptively mailed by Albertsons marketing personnel on material using Albertsons letterhead.
"Albertsons receives between $3 and $4.50 per inquiry letter and between $12 to $15 dollars per phone inquiry from the pharmaceutical companies," she says.
Jeffery Krinsk, a lawyer representing the PRC, says the consumer group wants Albertsons to stop this practice and to give customers the money received for their prescription information.
Krinsk warns he is sure this routine is taking place in other states, but explains this lawsuit was filed in California due to its stricter privacy laws. He says additional lawsuits are planned for other states, if appropriate.
"I imagine this is going on in Idaho," he says, "But it is not currently on our radar, due to its state laws that are more unprotective of consumers in areas of privacy and medical confidentiality."
Recent changes to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulations may allow pharmaceutical companies to access patientsí personal medical records, but some state laws are more strict about the confidentiality of patient medical information.
Krinsk says this lawsuit has helped spur privacy advocates to take a closer look at how privacy laws vary from state to state, and at the practices of other drug chains.
"We hope to clean up this area (of privacy abuse) with a single precedent-setting resolution," he says.
Albertsons Public Affairs Director for the Drug Division, Karen Ramos, responded to the lawsuit with a pre-written statement, "We highly value and respect the privacy of our pharmacy customers and do not sell, nor have we ever sold, their private information. We consider the allegations in this complaint to be false and totally without meritóand we will vigorously defend ourselves against them."
Albertsons and its affiliated companies are the second largest supermarket chain and fifth largest drugstore in the nation with more than 2,500 stores in 37 states nationwide. Its 2004 annual revenues exceeded $39 billion.
For more information, contact the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, at: (619) 298-3396 or www.privacyrights.org.
Albertsonís, Inc. at: (877) 932-7948 or www.albertson.com.
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