A federal agency is investigating whether Walgreens, the nation’s largest pharmacy chain, violated the rights of customers by not properly safeguarding their medical information.
The investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, first reported by the Wall Street Journal, involves a new type of store design Walgreens is using to have pharmacists meet with patients to discuss their medical issues. The chain has remodeled hundreds of stores to encourage the consultations.
At issue is whether pharmacy technicians in the so-called “Well Experience” stores go unsupervised while the pharmacists consult with customers, and whether private medical information is disclosed or compromised during the process.
Walgreens (NYSE:WAG) is already under fire from pain patients for maintaining a “secret checklist” that makes it difficult for them to get prescriptions for opioid pain medications filled. Many have also complained to the National Pain Report that they were profiled or humiliated by Walgreens’ pharmacists.
The new investigation was triggered by a complaint filed by a consumer advocacy group called Change to Win, which is funded by labor unions. The group said it visited over a hundred Walgreen stores and observed widespread patient privacy violations, including medical histories left visible on desks or prescription drugs left unattended.
Walgreen stores are largely non-unionized.
A company spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that the new store layout has been approved by pharmacy boards in more than 30 states.
“Walgreens is proud of the work we’ve done to advance community pharmacy in the U.S.,” said Michael Polzin. He said the company was co-operating with the investigation and predicted “the matter will be resolved without action.”
Three states — Maryland, Hawaii and Connecticut — don’t allow the “Well Experience” stores, because they require pharmacists to directly supervise technicians who fill prescriptions.
Change to Win has also been active in Florida, where it filed a complaint this week with the state health department alleging that 15 Walgreens stores violate state law by having pharmacists sit at a table away from the actual pharmacy, allowing technicians to work without supervision.
The complaint comes as the Florida legislature considers whether to allow the state’s Board of Pharmacy to increase the ratio of pharmacists-to-technicians, which would allow pharmacists to supervise more technicians in stores.
Pharmacists in the “Well Experience” stores observe technicians through a video screen while consulting with patients.
“While Florida law permits pharmacists to step away from the prescription area for specific reasons, such as to consult with patients, it stipulates that these activities must be conducted in a manner consistent with the pharmacist’s responsibility to provide pharmacy services,” the complaint states.
“The statute defines what supervision is and this isn’t following it,” Nell Geiser, associate director of Change to Win told the Associated Press.
The Florida Board of Pharmacy is considering whether to allow pharmacists to use “technological means” to supervise technicians, which could include a video screen.