Drug makers cancel marketing operation

BALTIMORE (AP) — A supermarket chain and one of the nation’s largest pharmacy companies said Wednesday they have stopped sharing medical information with a marketer paid to send customers prescription reminders and promotional literature for new drugs.
Giant Foods, Inc., based in Landover, Md., took out full-page advertisements in The (Baltimore) Sun and The Washington Post announcing its decision after critics said the practice was unethical and raised privacy concerns.
CVS Corp., based in Woonsocket, R.I., also said it is terminating the practice.
Both companies provided patient data to Elensys Inc., a Woburn, Mass., company that specializes in computer database marketing.
After the Post published an article Sunday detailing the relationship between the three companies, a number of customers called to complain, said Barry Scher, spokesman for Giant Foods.
“Because of privacy concerns, we discontinued the program immediately,” he said.
The Post article said Elensys was also paid sometimes by drug companies to send letters to pharmacy customers.
Giant Foods and CVS stressed that customers’ medical confidentiality was never compromised.
“We believe the program could greatly benefit certain patients,” said Fred McGrail, CVS spokesman. “But based on some concerns expressed by some customers, we have decided to suspend the program.”
Giant operates about 170 food and drug stores in Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia. CVS is one of the nation’s largest drug store chains, with 3,888 stores in 24 states and the District of Columbia.
Drugstore chains usually hire outside marketing companies to provide better customer service such as reminders to fill prescriptions, said Susan Winckler of the American Pharmaceutical Association, which represents 50,000 pharmacists.
The APA, however, frowns on marketers using customer databases to mail solicitations for new products, she said.
“That’s marketing and should be regulated as direct consumer advertising,” she said. “If there is going to be additional access … then the patient should know about that and should have the option to opt out of those programs.”
People have an expectation that the information they give their doctors and their pharmacists will remain confidential, and a violation of that trust is a serious breach of medical ethics, said Dr. George D. Lundberg, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Scher denied that customer privacy was violated. The advertisement said Giant Foods began sharing information in December after ensuring there were “extensive safeguards” to protect customer privacy.
Elensys was under contract to write customers letters on Giant Foods stationery reminding them to fill prescriptions or giving other medical tips and suggestions, Scher said.
But some of the mailings were blatant advertisements for new drugs, the Post reported.
Elensys said in a faxed statement it protects the confidentiality of prescription data, and all mailings it prepares are reviewed by the pharmacy chains before they are sent to customers.
“It is completely incorrect to suggest that Elensys provides pharmaceutical manufacturers with the right to mail information to individual customers,'” the company said, referring to the Post article.