A federal inquiry has found that several major pharmacy chains have a policy of turning over customers’ pharmacy records to police without a warrant. The results have sparked concerns from lawmakers about patient privacy, especially as fights over prescription abortion medication continue nationwide.
“Americans deserve to have their private medical information protected at the pharmacy counter and a full picture of pharmacies’ privacy practices, so they can make informed choices about where to get their prescriptions filled,” a letter from three members of Congress addressed to the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) read. “Americans’ health records deserve the greatest degree of protection available in law.”
In July, a group of nearly 50 Congressional lawmakers signed a letter to HHS, urging the agency to develop stricter regulations around pharmacies’ ability to disclose customer records to law enforcement.
Following this letter, three lawmakers, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), launched an inquiry into how the eight largest pharmacy chains in the United States—CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, the Cigna Group, Optum Rx, Walmart Inc., the Kroger Company, Rite Aid Corporation, and Amazon Pharmacy—handle requests from law enforcement to hand over customer prescription records.
In an additional letter sent this week, Wyden, Jayapal, and Jacobs stated that five of the eight pharmacy chains said that they require these demands by police to be “reviewed by legal professionals” before responding to law enforcement. However, they also found that in three of the chains, including CVS Health, the nation’s largest pharmacy company, “pharmacy staff face extreme pressure to immediately respond to law enforcement demands and, as such, the companies instruct their staff to process those requests in the store.”
The letter noted that these demands typically come in the form of a subpoena, an order that doesn’t require approval from a judge, unlike a warrant. While pharmacies aren’t free to simply ignore these subpoenas, the letter argues that “pharmacies can and should insist on a warrant, and invite law enforcement agencies that insist on demanding patient medical records with solely a subpoena to go to court to enforce that demand.” If pharmacies continue their policies of handing over pharmacy records, the lawmakers also argued that HHS should strengthen regulations to require pharmacies to adopt more stringent procedures.
Thankfully, the number of these requests appears to be fairly small. The letter noted that CVS Health received fewer than ten of these requests last year. However, despite the low number of requests, the lawmakers urged HHS to “do much more to protect patient data and push for far more transparency when pharmacy records are disclosed.”
Especially as debates over controversial medications—from abortion pills to opioid medications—loom large, customers’ ability to keep their prescription history private from prying law enforcement is paramount. Just as important is consumers’ ability to know which pharmacies are likely to give up their private information without a warrant.
“These findings underscore that not only are there real differences in how pharmacies approach patient privacy at the pharmacy counter, but these differences are not visible to the American people,” the letter reads. “If the landscape were made clearer, patients will finally be able to hold pharmacies with neglectful practices accountable by taking their business elsewhere.”