Online store meeting portals usually do not clearly indicate how companies will use the information that customers are providing. Privacy watchdog groups and some members of Congress have expressed concern that pharmacy chains will use that marketing data, such as the sale of ibuprofen or other products, to deal with the effects of the photos. And they warn that less tech-savvy patients seeking appointments may inadvertently join pharmacy loyalty programs that may bombard them with unexpected marketing emails and texts.
We do not want to see people in their desire to be vaccinated and honestly, to protect themselves and their loved ones in every way benefited, said Andrew Crawford, a lawyer at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
Several prominent consumer rights organizations, including the Electronic Privacy Information Center, on Friday sent a letter asking a group of Democratic states’s attorneys to investigate how pharmacy wholesalers are using data from Covid vaccine records. They also put pressure on those retailers to keep that information separate from marketing or business databases and to collect only the minimum amount of information needed for vaccine appointments.
The Biden administration has made big bets on retail pharmacies, this week announcing plans to more than double the 40,000 number of pharmacy sites offering Covid vaccinations through a federal program. Federal records show that the sites are popular with Americans, who are increasingly accustomed to receiving annual flu shots at their local pharmacies. The White House did not respond to inquiries about the use of pharmacy data from Covid vaccine appointments.
Pharmacies say the data they are collecting is important to effectively get people into vaccinations and that they are following health privacy rules. And some privacy advocates point out that pharmacies have ample room to collect and use customer data, as long as they do not leak sensitive health information.
But consumer advocates say there should be stronger restrictions on how pharmacies use Covid vaccination data, given the urgency of the health crisis and how difficult it is to find an alternative vaccination site in many cases.
The federal law governing the use of patient health information, HIPAA, prevents pharmacies from sharing customer health data for marketing purposes. But they can use the information to send out coupons and promote health services they may already be offering, such as checkups or flu data. There are fewer restrictions on what they can do with the data after clearing it to identify details, such as names and contact information, including potentially making business decisions, legal experts said.
I do not want to take away people’s privacy concerns, but it just seems like part of what pharmacies do on a daily basis, such as flu shot reminders and other services, said Trish Wagner, a privacy advocate with the firm Epstein Becker Green.
As long as the terrain is on the borders of [HIPAA] privacy rule, they can do this extension, she added.
However Doriann Cain, a partner with law firm Faegre Drinker Biddle & Reath, said things like mandatory online registrations to book or ask for appointments go beyond what pharmacies typically require for other services like flu shots when people can often fall.
The sheer volume of information they are receiving is probably quite valuable to them, Cain said.
Pharmacies cannot charge patients for vaccines that the government is covering. However, they can bill insurers and the government for the cost of administering vaccines.
The biggest business game for companies seems to be the opportunity to line up repeat customers. During a profit call in February, CVS chief Jon Roberts described the vaccine company’s ability to turn newcomers into long-term customers, starting with the 15 minutes patients are supposed to wait in the store after receiving a Covid blow. During that surveillance period, he said, store employees may try to sell patients to MinuteClinics companies for regular healthcare visits and CarePass, its pharmacy membership service.
We have their email, we have their text message and we have the ability to communicate with them regularly, Roberts said.
CVS spokesman Michael DeAngelis said the company is now using customer data for Covid vaccines only for appointment confirmations and reminders, but he said using this marketing information is an opportunity for the future. CVS does not require vaccine seekers to create an online profile until they are ready to schedule an appointment, a phone number is required, but email is optional.
What I can generally say about our patient programs is that they choose, so everything we do is with the consent of our clients, DeAngelis added.
A spokesman for the Federal Trade Commission, who did not say whether the consumer protection agency is examining how retail pharmacies are using data from Covid vaccines, said companies could be investigated if they defraud customers of how their information is used.
If companies tell consumers they are collecting data for one purpose only, they cannot use it for another purpose, the spokesman said.
Some lawmakers have recently introduced bills aimed at curbing the use of data collected by companies for pandemic response, warning that efforts to fight the virus have been hampered by people’s fears about how their personal information could be used. One of those measures, the Public Health Emergency Privacy Act, would restrict the way retailers use vaccine planning data.
The data should be used as intended, with public health agencies and technology companies deploying new digital tools to combat the spread of COVID-19, said co-sponsor Bill Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.)
The federal government began sending Covid vaccines directly to retail pharmacies in early February, but discussions about the deal began under the Trump administration last fall. Twenty-one national chains and independent pharmacy chains are participating in the federal program, and states have also run some of the doses they receive from the federal government in pharmacies. CVS and Walgreens are also managing vaccination programs for long-term care staff and residents through an agreement reached with the Trump administration.
Concerns about how pharmacies might use customer data did not emerge in early discussions with the federal government, said Mitchel Rothholz, chief of staff for the American Pharmacists Association, the largest industry group. At the time, he said, the main concern was whether pharmacies would use the data to prioritize their existing customers for vaccine sites, rather than follow state-set guidelines, he said.
In some cases, vaccine seekers may feel stimulated to register in customer accounts at pharmacies. Rite Aid, for example, does not require people to set up an account to book an appointment, but the company does not notify registered customers by phone if their health records suggest they are eligible for vaccines when there are unused doses available , said a spokesman for POLITICO.
Privacy experts said some retail pharmacies have been better than others at separating vaccine appointments from marketing efforts. The Albertsons food chain, at the point of securing a vaccine site, allows people to choose to receive Covid-related marketing information about vaccines or the overall marketing scope, rather than registering them automatically.
From chains requiring people to create user accounts before requesting an appointment, Walgreens and Health Mart get people to enter their phone numbers and emails. Walmart and Sams Club did not answer many questions about the data they collect and how they are used.
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