Pharmacies announce changes at more than 15,000 drugstores

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Bob Segall/13 Investigates

The nation's largest pharmacy chains are taking action following a six-month Eyewitness News investigation that shows privacy violations at drugstores around the nation. 13 Investigates inspected pharmacy dumpsters in more than a dozen US cities. The prescription privacy test netted 2,394 patient records from those unsecured dumpsters.

"We have to change the way we do things," said Mitch Betses, CVS Director of Pharmacy Operations. "Customers have an expectation of privacy and we cannot allow these things to happen."

Corporate representatives from CVS, Walgreens and Rite Aid -- the nation's three largest drugstore chains totaling more than 15,000 pharmacies -- say they will take immediate steps to comply with state and federal laws that require drugstores and healthcare providers to protect patient privacy.

Walgreens sent WTHR a statement outlining seven steps the company is taking at all of its pharmacies. The steps include prohibiting drugstore staff from discarding patient vials with general trash and requiring that all Walgreens dumpsters be locked at all times.

Walgreens spokesman Michael Polzin said the nation's second-largest drugstore chain is also testing other solutions in some of its southern California pharmacies, such as placing all general trash into quarantine before it's taken outside. "The trash then must be inspected to ensure no patient information is inside. Once inspected, a sticker is applied to the sealed bag with the date and signature of the person who performed the inspection," Polzin explained in the statement.

In early August, Walgreens sent an e-mail to all stores and conducted a nationwide conference call with more than 200 district pharmacy supervisors to re-iterate its policy of not placing sensitive customer records in its dumpsters. But following those steps, 13 Investigates found private patient records in Walgreens dumpsters in Detroit, Louisville, Chicago, Miami, Denver and Phoenix.

Polzin said improved compliance at Walgreens' 5,515 drugstores will likely take several months. "We have a big ship and turning it around takes time," he added.

CVS responded to WTHR's national prescription privacy test by calling its performance "unacceptable" and announcing its own policy changes.

The company will no longer permit any trash from the pharmacy section of its drugstores to be placed in dumpsters. CVS has decided to designate a specific area within each drugstore to store pharmacy trash bags until they are delivered directly to regional warehouses for disposal.

CVS has also created signs (see here also) and stickers for its pharmacies to reinforce proper handling of trash and will conduct in-store training sessions at all 6,172 of its drugstores to review revised procedures.

"Our goal is to step up enforcement," said CVS corporate privacy officer Christine Egan. "We've trained our employees and they simply cannot make mindless mistakes ... it's intolerable."

Egan told Eyewitness News that CVS will be "re-thinking how we train our employees" following the investigation.

A CVS statement outlining the company's changes says the pharmacy chain is now in the process of implementing its new policies and procedures and expects the process to be completed by the end of the year.

Jody Cook, a spokeswoman for Rite Aid pharmacies, says that pharmacy chain "immediately reiterated our policies and procedures" at drugstores where WTHR found customers' private health records in the trash. Cook says Rite Aid is also reviewing policies with all of its more than 3,300 pharmacies.

"It should not have happened and we take this very seriously," she said.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Civil Rights, as well as the Indiana Attorney General's office, have launched independent investigations as a result of WTHR's prescription privacy investigation to determine whether pharmacies featured in the reports will face any fines or other penalties for improperly disposing patient information. After watching Channel 13's investigation, the Indiana Board of Pharmacy filed complaints against 30 Indianapolis-area pharmacies.

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