Wyden and Jayapal lead inquiry that finds pharmacies fail to protect medical privacy

Major pharmacy chains provide prescription records to law enforcement without a court order, stoking privacy concerns

By: – December 12, 2023 

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, is calling on tighter federal regulations to cover the confidentiality of prescription records in pharmacies. (Adobe Stock)

Major pharmacy chains fail to protect the medical privacy of Americans, a new inquiry released Tuesday found, prompting calls by Northwest lawmakers for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to improve federal privacy regulations.

U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon’s senior Democratic senator, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, revealed the shortcomings of major pharmacy chains in a letter on Tuesday to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Along with Rep. Sara Jacobs, D-California, the trio launched the inquiry after the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade, which removed the constitutional right to an abortion and allowed states to impose abortion restrictions.

More than a dozen states, including Idaho, have enacted restrictive bans, forcing women to travel across state lines to obtain an abortion. Their numbers are rising, according to a December report by the Guttmacher Institute. It showed that 9% of women who had an abortion in 2020 traveled to another state, jumping to 17% this year. The numbers have remained fairly flat in Oregon – about 10% of those obtaining abortions in the state crossed state lines – but they’ve increased in Washington state from 5% to 10%.

That’s heightened concerns about medical privacy and law enforcement access to records. Last session, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 2002, which protects providers from losing their Oregon license if they provide reproductive health care.

With those concerns in mind, congressional members asked eight major pharmacy chains — CVS Health, Walgreens Boots Alliance, Cigna, Optum Rx, Walmart Stores, The Kroger Company, Rite Aid Corporation and Amazon Pharmacy — how they respond to law-enforcement requests for prescription and other health records. Many abortions are performed with the medication mifepristone, which conservative groups are trying to get banned even though the Food and Drug Administration approved it as safe and effective in 2000.

The inquiry found that none of the major pharmacy companies requires a warrant to share prescription records with law enforcement unless required by state law. And only CVS Health publishes annual transparency reports about law-enforcement requests for records. During the inquiry, Walgreen Boots Alliance and The Kroger Company also said they would start to produce transparency reports.

“Americans’ prescription records are among the most private information the government can obtain about a person,” the members wrote in their letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra. “They can reveal extremely personal and sensitive details about a person’s life, including prescriptions for birth control, depression or anxiety medications, or other private medical conditions.”

Pharmacy companies vary on whether they require demands for records to be reviewed by an attorney or paralegal. For some companies, staff hand over records immediately when law enforcement demands them.

They want federal privacy regulations to require a warrant to law enforcement demands for medical records. That would give them the same protection that federal law provides emails and cell phone location data.

Wyden and U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, urged federal officials to require warrants for medical records in a July letter as part of a group of 47 members of Congress.

Source: Wyden and Jayapal lead inquiry that finds pharmacies fail to protect medical privacy  – Oregon Capital Chronicle