Bill Aims to Open Medical Records

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Information from pharmacies could go to drug firms

Pharmaceutical companies could gain access to medical records to send reminders to patients to refill prescriptions, if a state bill is passed.

The bill, SB 1096, was introduced by state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello.

It allows pharmaceutical companies to purchase the information from the pharmacies that serve individual patients. But it does force those companies to disclose on mailings to the patient that the pharmacy profited from selling the information.

Advocates say patients could benefit from the bill.

"There are people with diabetes, seniors, and others who could use a reminder to refill their prescriptions," said Calderon. "I’ve had prescriptions run out where a reminder would have been helpful."

Consumer and civil rights advocates describe the legislation as a violation of privacy rights.

"This bill would allow your most private information, pills and sicknesses, to be transferred to a third-party without your knowledge," said Jerry Flanagan, of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights. "All so pharmaceutical companies can advertise their products to you."

In 2007, Calderon received more than $15,000 in contributions from pharmaceutical companies and retail pharmacies, records show. Two of his contributors, Rite Aid and the National Association of Chain Drug Stores, are supporters of the bill. The sponsor of the bill is a drug company, Adheris, which is a for-profit company that works to keep patients taking their medications.

Company officials did not return phone calls Friday. Calderon says the bill would help companies like Adheris carry out their mission. He added that his concern is for patients, and it is irrelevant whether drug companies and pharmacies benefit or not.

"I never look at who my donors are before I decide to sponsor a bill," said Calderon. "My idea is to help people get their medications."

Several medical groups also support the bill.

Rusty Selix, the head of the Mental Health Association in California, said the legislation would benefit people taking prescription pills for physiological disorders.

"Compliance with taking medication is a big problem in mental health," said Selix.

Selix also said that the pharmacies’ disclosure that they profited from the information, and other rules, give sufficient consumer protection.

The disclosure would have to be printed in "14-point type" on the mailer and allow a way for recipients to opt out of receiving future communications from the company. The law also requires sending a copy of the mailing to the federal Food and Drug Administration.

The companies that received the information would also be subject to privacy laws that would ban them from passing patient information on, or using it for any other purposes.

The mailings would not be allowed to contain advertisements for products other than the medication that would treat the patient’s current condition. Also, companies would be subject to privacy laws that would ban them from passing patient information on.

But advocates say that the protections are not enough to keep companies from making the reminders look more like an advertisement than a friendly reminder.

"They’re not just reminding you to just take your pills so much as they are reminding you to take their pills," Flanagan said. "There are generic versions of most medications that cost less than the drug companies’ versions."

Calderon said concerns over potential benefits to drug companies are overblown.

"They are not allowed to advertise any of their other products," said Calderon. "The letter is only meant to serve as a reminder."

The bill failed in a vote by the Health Committee Wednesday, but two members of the committee were missing, according to Rocky Rushing, Calderon’s chief of staff. Four members of the committee voted yes on the bill, two voted no, leaving the bill one vote short of being passed to the floor of the Senate.

Rushing said he expects that a new vote will be held when the legislature reconvenes after spring break.

One of the no voters, Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, proposed an amendment designed to address privacy concerns, said Rushing.

The proposed amendment would force pharmacies to get written consent from customers on receiving mailings when they fill their prescriptions.

Calderon said, however, he does not support the amendment.

"It would make the bill meaningless," said Calderon. "It’s been demonstrated that people won’t sign up voluntarily."

However, Calderon said he expected the committee would add several other amendments intended to allay committee member’s concerns.

Those would include a large-font reminder to patients to follow all doctor’s orders, in case a prescription changed since the drug company got the patient’s information.

Also, the new amendments would require that the reminder be printed in the same language the prescription was written in, for non-English speakers, and increase penalties for misuse of disclosed information.

Contact the author at [email protected] or (626) 962-8811, Ext. 2105

Consumer Watchdog
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