Bill would let pharmacies sell medical records

by Elizabeth Fernandez , San Francisco Chronicle

Pharmacies in California would be allowed to sell confidential patient
prescription information to third-party marketing firms working for drug
companies under a bill expected to be voted on Thursday by the state Senate.

The legislation would allow pharmaceutical firms to send mailings directly to
patients. Supporters of the proposal say the intent is to remind patients to
take their medicine and order refills. But consumer privacy advocates are

"This bill would be a windfall for corporations seeking to track, buy and
sell a patient’s private medical records," said Zack Kaldveer, spokesman for the
Consumer Federation of California. "This would represent a significant intrusion
by pharmaceutical companies into the privacy of patients.

"By opening this Pandora’s box, consumers could wind up receiving mailings
designed to look as if they came from the pharmacy yet conflict with what their
pharmacist or doctor has recommended. Such a scenario would be a threat to their

The California Medical Association opposes the legislation, contending that
it could jeopardize patient safety and hurt doctor-patient relationships. The
mailings are particularly problematic for patients with sensitive medical issues
such as mental illnesses, says the association.

People receiving medication for a litany of illnesses, including cancer,
diabetes, asthma, osteoporosis, depression, hypertension and heart disease,
could receive the letters.

"The point is to tell people to take the drug as prescribed and to refill
it," said Rocky Rushing, a spokesman for the author, Sen. Ron Calderon,
D-Montebello (Los Angeles County).

He said many people fail to follow medication directions.

Dr. Rupin Thakkar, a board member of the National Physicians Alliance,
considers the proposed legislation a pharmaceutical ploy to gain access to
important patient information.

"It’s as if you were shopping in a supermarket and someone was following you
and saying for everything you buy, ‘You should try something different,’ " said
Thakkar, who practices in Edmonds, Wash.

"It’s a horrible invasion of privacy – it amounts to marketing directly to
patients in their homes. One’s health care information absolutely needs to be

Last week, the Senate defeated the bill, SB1096, on a 17-17 vote, but
Calderon amended it to allow patients to opt-out when they pick up their

"You pick up your meds and have the opportunity to opt out," said spokesman
Rushing. "It’s similar to waiving your right to consult with the pharmacist. We
are trying to strike a balance. … There was a lot of concern about people
being forced into a program where they had no say-so."

But consumer groups say it’s unfair to place the burden on patients to halt a
marketing practice.

"We’re concerned that people won’t notice it or won’t understand what it
means," said Jerry Flanagan of Consumer Watchdog.

A primary backer of the bill is Adheris Inc, a subsidiary of a drug marketing
company that was sued several years ago under its former name for privacy
violations. Adheris is involved in a pending class-action lawsuit in San Diego
involving the same issues in the Calderon bill.

California has one of the nation’s strongest medical privacy laws. Under the
Confidentiality of Medical Information Act, direct mail marketing to patients by
pharmaceutical firms is not permitted.