By Dan Rivoli
When health lifestyle emporium Thérapie New York shut down its pharmacy department last month, customers’ prescriptions were sold to a Duane Reade branch a block away.
Some regulars were incensed while others were merely miffed or confused.
Was this a violation of privacy? An inconvenience?
According to state regulations, the transfer was simply protocol: pharmacies that are shutting down can sell patient information as long as they tell patients such a transfer has occurred.But there are customers who say they would prefer notification before the transfer is made. Some even believed the transfer of records violated a privacy law. The common denominator seemed to be that no one knew exactly what a pharmacy was required—or ought—to do upon closing. More confusion is likely as independent pharmacies continue to struggle and close due to low reimbursement rates and competition from large chain stores.
From January 2008 to February 2010, 44 pharmacies—many independently-owned—closed in Manhattan, five on the West Side, according to a list compiled by the Society of Pharmacists for the State of New York. However, some may have reopened under different management.
When stores close, big chains often get the prescription information. Since 2008, only one West Side pharmacy, on Columbus Avenue between West 104th and 105th streets, transferred prescriptions to another independent store after closing.
Thérapie, at 309 Columbus Ave. between West 74th and West 75th streets, sent letters to its customers notifying them about the transfer to Duane Reade, at 325 Columbus Ave.
A Thérapie customer, John Mainieri said he started to go to the pharmacy after experiencing unsatisfactory service at Duane Reade. Three days after a Thérapie employee told him that the pharmacy was closing, he received a letter informing him that Duane Reade would be holding his prescriptions.
“If I wanted to go back to Duane Reade, I’d do it myself,” Mainieri said.
But Thérapie was following regulations set by the state’s Education Department Board of Pharmacy.
“I just assumed it was against the law because they were shipping private information without knowledge or without consent,” Mainieri said.
Selling or transferring records to another pharmacy is actually meant to benefit consumers so they can seamlessly continue getting medication and to prevent someone who is not a pharmacist from getting their information.
“[The law] requires that all prescription records be maintained in one location, known to this agency, for at least five years,” Jonathan Burman, spokesperson for the state Department of Education, wrote in an email.
Thérapie echoed that statement, explaining that by selling the information, they were merely following state requirements.
“By law, the New York State pharmacy board, we are required to [transfer prescriptions] because we are a closing pharmacy,” said Dionisio Lee, a partner at Thérapie. “We have to transfer all the prescription records to the nearest pharmacy. It has to go somewhere. If those prescriptions are not in a pharmacy and you have a reaction or need a refill and you don’t know where your scripts are and can’t get it, you can suffer a major health crisis.”
Industry groups say that prescriptions contain personal information that needs to be held in a regulated establishment. If left dormant, that information could be lost, stolen or misplaced.
“The state board, in order to protect the patient, allows those prescriptions to be transferred to another location. It has to be retrievable,” said Charles Catalano, president of the New York City Pharmacists Society. “Say I close my door tomorrow and someone breaks into the pharmacy and steals patient records.”
The notification process for telling consumers that their information is being transferred, however, is minimal.
“Basically, notification is a sign in the window,” Catalano said.
Other customers at Thérapie were similarly confused by the notice. Rachel Dean, now a Duane Reade customer, courtesy of the prescription transfer, felt the notification was backwards.
“They were able to [send out the letter] after the fact,” she said. “It would have been nice to do it before the fact.”
Some pharmacy customers, however, noted that the transfer allowed prescriptions to be picked up from another location immediately after a store closes.
Outside of Joseph Pharmacy, on West 72nd Street and Broadway, Carole Berk, felt that transferring prescriptions would be a convenience.
“It might be good for people to know where to pick up your antihistamine,” she said.
But Richard Lubarsky thinks the notification process needs to be enhanced. Lubarsky, an attorney, represented a New York City man with AIDS who sued CVS and his former pharmacy in 1999 for selling his prescription when the owner retired. The suit was the first of its kind in the country, Lubarsky said. There was a settlement in 2005, and the judge decided that the independent pharmacy had a responsibility to inform its customers of the transfer.
“Consumers should be given notice and the opportunity to decide where their information could go,” Lubarsky said. “But the customer can’t even make that decision unless they know in advance.”
Confusion over prescription transfers could become a recurring issue for Upper West Side pharmacy customers, as these are lean times for independent establishments. Unlike big chains with large front-ends that sell food and other merchandise, these establishments’ main source of revenue is prescriptions. And the state has cut Medicaid reimbursement rates.
“It has severely weakened them, made them financially fragile,” said Craig Burridge, executive director of the Pharmacists Society of New York State. “This is not healthy for the state. [Independent pharmacists are] hoping for relief from the Legislature.”
Lee, the partner at Thérapie, said the store’s pharmacy department was losing $200,000 a year. Insurance companies and state prescription reimbursements barely covered the cost of filling the script.
“Sometime you have to cut the loss,” Lee said. “We are dictated not by the market rate [that prescriptions] will pay, but what the state will pay and what the insurance companies will pay.”
Ricky Pisapia, who has owned Joseph Pharmacy for 10 years, also feels the pinch. His gripe was insurance companies forcing customers to take a 90-day supply sent through the mail, instead of ordering from their local pharmacy on a monthly basis. But Pisapia and other independent pharmacy owners say they do have a leg up on chain drug stores when it comes to personalized service, which helps them retain customers. He sends his pharmacists to senior centers and has a delivery service.
“We have a one-on-one relationship with customers,” Pisapia said. “We know them by name and they like that.”
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