Bob Segall/13 Investigates
Do you trust your local pharmacy with your sensitive personal information? If you do, you might have second thoughts based on an Eyewitness News investigation.
Over a two-month period, 13 Investigates reporter Bob Segall visited 65 local pharmacies. Actually, he visited their dumpsters. Some were latched, locked or chained. But most had no security at all - out in the open, 24 hours a day. At those dumpsters, we took whatever we found - it's perfectly legal.
We ended up with dozens of bags and we brought them back to our studios. What we found inside those bags was far more than worthless garbage. They contained dozens of pills -- drugs such as antibiotics and prescription steroids. And that was just the beginning.
Perhaps more alarming, we found prescriptions, pill bottles and prescription labels that provided personal information about hundreds of patients. In fact, at pharmacies where we took garbage bags, we found more than half of them trashed their customers' privacy by failing to destroy their personal information as required by federal law.
We learned who's taking birth control pills, who has an enlarged prostate, which customers suffer from depression and which one has a prescription for genital herpes. And along with it, we learned their names, addresses, phone numbers and birthdates. You won't hear from any of those particular patients, but others are speaking out.
Julie Stewart, one of the customers whose personal information was in the trash, said she was surprised and angry.
"With identity theft and all the problems out there nowadays, things like this should not be left unattended," she said.
Jackie Wright expressed the same feeling when we told her about finding her family's prescription labels inside a CVS dumpster on the city's northwest side.
"Why would that be in the dumpster?" she asked. "They're supposed to be shredding it, get rid of it, destroying it. Don't throw it out in the dumpster where people can get your personal information and just walk up to your door like you did."
Wright was lucky because it was a reporter who walked up to her door. Margie Kerr was not so fortunate. A thief came to her Bloomington home and stole her prescription painkillers. Detectives say the thief singled out his 76-year-old victim when he found her personal information in an open dumpster behind her pharmacy.
"It wasn't protected at all," said Monroe County Sheriff's Sgt. Brad Swain. He said the case offers a valuable lesson about how dangerous pharmacy records can be if they end up in the wrong hands.
"My main concern is home invasions," he said. "I would think in this day and age that they would be more careful about patients' personal information."
We did find some pharmacies that are being careful - some with locked dumpsters and others that shredded patient records before putting them in the trash.
But many pharmacies are not taking those precautions, and it's a major concern for customers and for the federal government.
"Protections need to be in place," said Susan McAndrew, who is a top legal advisor at the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.
McAndrew said the law is clear: customers' personal health information must be carefully protected. After seeing what we found in the trash, she offered advice for pharmacies.
"Don't do that!" she said. "Putting protected health information in a dumpster that is accessible to anyone... is clearly not an example of a reasonable safeguard."
McAndrew said most pharmacies are bound by HIPAA, a federal law that requires patients' and customers' private health information to be protected. Businesses that fail to comply can be fined up to $100 per incident.
The health department's Office of Civil Rights says it might open its own investigation following this report. Some customers are taking action right away, filing complaints with the department (Find out how to file a complaint). And, they say, if their privacy is being trashed, it's time to dump their pharmacy.
"I think I'll be calling CVS and changing my prescriptions to another pharmacy," said Jan Reynolds, whose records we found in a pharmacy dumpster. "I'm a nurse, so I know the importance of HIPAA and patient privacy. This breaks all those rules."
CVS and Walgreens, the nation's two largest pharmacy chains which also operate most of the pharmacies in central Indiana, say they will fix the problems found at their stores. Corporate officials from both CVS and Walgreens didn't want to talk about this issue on camera, but they did send us statements.
CVS, which now owns Osco Drug locations, wrote: "We sincerely apologize.... It is unacceptable that patient information was inadvertently placed in the dumpsters of some of our Indianapolis stores." (Read their full statement.)
And Walgreens said: "We deeply regret having patient records mixed in with general store waste.... Our management in the area has made it a priority to ensure stores are disposing of these items properly." (Read their full statement.)
Eyewitness News will shred all of the customer information we found -- exactly what should have happened in the first place.
How We Did This Test
For this investigation, we randomly chose 65 metro-area pharmacies. The test included pharmacy-only stores such as Walgreens, CVS, Osco, Tucker Pharmacy and Low Cost Rx stores. It did not include grocery and retail stores that also offer pharmacy services because dumpsters at those locations contained mostly non-pharmacy trash.
During the test, we took trash only from pharmacy dumpsters that offered easy public access. We did not take trash from the 13 pharmacies where the dumpsters were either locked or unaccessible to the public. Nor did we take garbage from the seven pharmacies at which dumpsters were behind a closed fence, even if the fence was unlocked. Trash dumpsters at 15 of the pharmacies were easily accessible but empty at the times we visited. We took trash from the remaining 30 pharmacies with easily-accessible garbage dumpsters, and 19 of them failed to destroy all of their customers' personal information before placing it in the dumpsters.