Consumer Watchdog Warns of New Medical Privacy Dangers in Wake of Breach of Farrah Fawcett and Maria Shriver Records at UCLA

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Since 2006 Senator Calderon, Sponsor of Bill Allowing Invasions of Medical Privacy, Received $21,690 from Drug Companies and Pharmacies

Santa Monica,CA — Breaches of medical privacy at UCLA Medical Center illustrate the broader privacy threat of releasing electronic medical records for commercial marketing — as demonstrated by a proposed California law that would allow drug companies to use individual patient records to market prescription drugs, said Consumer Watchdog. The bill, SB 1096, by Senator Calderon of Montebello will be voted on by the Senate Health Committee tomorrow.

In the case of Farrah Fawcett, lawyers allege that her medical information obtained from UCLA ended up in the tabloids, despite denials by UCLA executives that information illegally accessed by an employee or employees was sold or bartered.

Consumer Watchdog (formerly the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights) noted that average consumers have little to fear from the tabloids but are at a much higher risk of losing their medical privacy through innappropriate commercial trading of those records.

“Instead of strengthening medical privacy laws to punish and prevent medical privacy breaches like those at UCLA, the California Legislature is on the verge of allowing a third-party marketing arm of the pharmaceutical industry to access patient medical histories without a patient’s consent or knowledge,” said Jerry Flanagan, Health Care Policy Director for Consumer Watchdog. "As personal medical information becomes an increasingly available and valuable commodity for the corporations that buy and sell it, consumers are more vulnerable to unscrupulous marketers, identity thieves and corrupt corporations."

Insurance companies investigating a claim or an employer checking up on a prospective employee would likely pay a price for a patient’s private medical records, said the nonprofit, nonpartisan Consumer Watchdog. On-line information aggregators enhance these threats by compiling data dossiers that accumulate, manipulate and distribute data that most Americans consider private and protected.

Senate Bill 1096 by California Senator Ronald Calderon (D-Montebello) would allow marketing companies, like the bill’s sponsor, the drug company-financed  Adheris, to access patients’ prescription drug purchases without a patient’s prior consent. The company’s promotional material says that it uses the information for communicating with patients to increase “adherence” to a scheduled drug regimen. Consumer Watchdog said, however,  that it is clearly, for the drug companies that pay Adheris, a direct marketing tool. Adheris is likely to directly or indirectly encourage a patient to stay on a branded medication, even if a cheaper generic is available.

Adheris’ "advice" about how long a medication should be taken may conflict with that of the physician who actually knows the patient, and who may wish to stop the medication or switch to a different one. The bill is premised on the idea that mailed reminders will help ensure that patients take their medications.  Adheris provides no evidence to support the claim.

Consumer Watchdog said that this seemingly benign “service” is also a violation of a patient’s right to control his or her personal medical information.  The bill would allow a pharmacy to share information about a patient’s medical conditions and prescription drug regimen to a third party proprietary business hired by drug companies to increase drug sales. Such transfers would occur without the patient’s knowledge or consent.

Another issue is the threat of misuse of the data by allowing a third party to have access to it.  Minimally, the bill would usher in a new era of electronic databases containing private, personally identifiable medical information. Such databases have already proven attractive targets to hackers and identity thieves.  The problem is compounded when confidential medical information is sent electronically.

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Consumer Watchdog
Consumer Watchdog
Providing an effective voice for American consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Non-partisan.

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