CVS, pharmacy
Photo credit: Mike Mozart / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

A new congressional investigation shows that the country’s major drug stores routinely hand over the prescription information of Americans without a warrant.

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Even without being served a warrant, the nation’s largest pharmaceutical chains are routinely handing over the prescription records of Americans to law enforcement.  

That is the main takeaway from an investigation conducted by three congressional Democrats. On Tuesday, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) and Sara Jacobs (D-CA) sounded the alarm that, without the knowledge of patients, these sensitive health records can end up in the hands of law enforcement — after the mere issuance of a subpoena. Only one of the largest pharmaceutical chains, Amazon Pharmacy, notifies patients if their prescription information has been requested by law enforcement. However, not a single one of the chains requires a warrant. 

In a letter to Xavier Becerra, the secretary of Health and Human Services, the lawmakers said urgent changes are needed. 

“Americans’ prescription records are among the most private information the government can obtain about a person,” the members wrote. “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.”

The Democrats feel that this is a pressing matter, particularly in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade

Their investigation revealed several troubling results. For example, they found that three chains — CVS Health, the Kroger Company, and Rite Aid — do not even require legal review before handing over these documents. 

To remedy the situation, the lawmakers are calling on Becerra to do something. 

“We urge HHS to consider further strengthening its HIPAA regulations to more closely align them with Americans’ reasonable expectations of privacy and Constitutional principles. Pharmacies can and should insist on a warrant, and invite law enforcement agencies that insist on demanding patient medical records with solely a subpoena to go to court to enforce that demand.”

It should be noted that, in response to the investigation, several of the chains have already vowed to make changes. For example, a number of the companies have pledged to begin releasing annual transparency reports of law enforcement requests. 

“This initial inquiry resulted in immediate policy changes at some of these companies,” the lawmakers wrote. “If the landscape were made clearer, patients will finally be able to hold pharmacies with neglectful practices accountable by taking their business elsewhere.”

The lawmakers told Becerra that the burden of trying to figure out whether their prescription records have ended up in the hands of law enforcement should not rest on Americans. As things stand now, consumers are totally in the dark when it comes to the disclosure of these records and nearly all of them are unaware of any kind of recourse available. There are many steps that both HHS and the pharmaceutical chains could take to better safeguard this information and alert patients when their records have been requested, and all stakeholders need to do better. 

 “Americans’ health records deserve the greatest degree of protection available in law.”


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