CVS asks customers to sign away drug privacy

In exchange for waiving your rights under federal law, the drugstore offers $50 to join its prescription rewards program.

By Aimee Picchi Aug 16, 2013 1:36PM

A woman carries a bag as she leaves a CVS store in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2009 (Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg via Getty Images)Updated at 3:49 p.m., ET.


How much is your prescription drug privacy worth? The answer, according to CVS Caremark (CVS), is $50. 


The drugstore chain is offering customers up to $50 a year in store credits for enrolling in its ExtraCare rewards programs, which was expanded earlier this year to include prescription drugs. 


But the issue with the program is that it requires customers to sign a HIPAA authorization, which in effect means consumers are signing away their privacy rights, David Lazarus reports in the Los Angeles Times. 


On top of that, CVS fails to clarify to customers exactly what HIPAA is, Lazarus charges. If you're like most folks, you may be vaguely aware of the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, perhaps encountering it at a doctor's or dentist's office while filling out paperwork. 


HIPAA provides a raft of safeguards enabling individuals to find out how their health information is used and limiting how your data is shared, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.


But that's not entirely clear from CVS' website. On the FAQ posted there, the question "Why do I need to sign a HIPAA authorization?" gives only this as the answer: "The HIPAA Authorization allows CVS/pharmacy to record the prescription earnings of each person who joins the ExtraCare Pharmacy & Health Rewards program."


By signing the form, customers are giving CVS the green light to share information about their drug purchases, including with pharmaceutical companies, Lazarus notes. 


"It's very troubling," Privacy Rights Clearinghouse director of policy Paul Stephens told the publication. "Your medical information is very sensitive. Pharmaceutical companies obviously would want to know what you're taking and get you to buy more expensive medicines."


But CVS maintains that the company is only counting the number of prescriptions that it fills for individual customers. "This HIPAA Authorization is required to reward individual members for the prescriptions they fill," spokesman Mike DeAngelis wrote to MSN moneyNOW in an email. "We do not sell, rent or give personal information to any non-affiliated third parties."


The company doesn't "redisclose" patients' personal information, he added. The program has 70 million active cardholders.


To be sure, the move might be just the latest example of corporate America's push into customers' lives. Nordstrom (JWN), for instance, tracks customers' movements through their cellphones' Wi-Fi signals, while Progressive offers a discount if customers allow their driving to be monitored. And let's not forget the granddaddy of them all, the U.S. government's wiretap program


Still, CVS rivals Rite-Aid (RAD) and Walgreen (WAG) don't ask customers to sign away their privacy rights, Lazarus notes. Whether $50 is a fair exchange for medical information should be something customers think hard about before signing it away.


Follow Aimee Picchi on Twitter at @aimeepicchi. 


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