Feds probing alleged Walgreens HIPAA violations

March 21, 2014

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into alleged patient- privacy violations at Walgreens, following complaints that chain’s new pharmacy design is putting sensitive patient information at risk, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office for Civil Rights has launched an investigation into alleged patient- privacy violations at Walgreens, following complaints that chain’s new pharmacy design is putting sensitive patient information at risk, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Last year, the labor union-funded Change to Win Retail Initiatives (CWRI) filed a complaint with HHS claiming its investigation into Walgreens’ Well Experience pharmacies in three states found numerous and repeated violations of the Healthcare Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

In the new Well Experience pharmacy design, pharmacists are at a desk in front of the pharmacy counter, as opposed to the traditional position behind the counter.

CWRI said its investigators made 100 visits to 50 Walgreens pharmacies in Illinois, Indiana, and Florida during June, July, and August 2013. During those visits, CWRI investigators allegedly found patient information such as medical histories left unattended and visible to customers in 80% of stores observed. In nearly half of the pharmacies visited (46%), prescriptions were left unattended and within the reach of customers.

“As the nation’s largest drug chain, Walgreens should know that playing fast and loose with sensitive, protected patient information is not only wrong but also illegal,” Deborah C. Peel, MD, founder and chair of Patient Privacy Rights, said following the release of the CWRI study.

The critical report from CWRI prompted U.S. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) to send a letter to Walgreens asking the drug chain to respond to issues of patient privacy, data security, and patient safety raised in the report.

 

 

“I understand and support the goal of making pharmacists more accessible to patients for counseling and other services. However, I remain concerned that placing the pharmacist’s workstation in a public area may result in violations of patients’ health privacy rights,” Markey wrote. 

According to the WSJreport, Maryland, Hawaii, and Connecticut do not allow the new Walgreens design because their state laws require pharmacists to work in the same area and directly supervise technicians.

A Walgreens spokesman, Michael Polzin, said pharmacy boards in more than 30 states have approved the new pharmacy design. “Walgreens is proud of the work we’ve done to advance community pharmacy in the U.S.,” he told the WSJ. Polzin said the company is cooperating with federal investigators and believes the matter will be resolved without action.

The WSJ report said that an HHS spokesperson confirmed the investigation but would not comment further.