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Giant Food Stops Sharing Customer Data; Prescription-Marketing Plan Drew Complaints

In response to a deluge of complaints, Giant Food Inc. announced it will no longer send prescription information to a Massachusetts marketing company that tracks customers who don't refill prescriptions.

"The agreement we signed with the company had extensive safeguards to protect our customers' privacy," said a letter from Giant published today as a paid advertisement in The Washington Post and other newspapers. "However, customers have told us their concerns about confidentiality. So, effective immediately, we have stopped the program."

The abrupt turnabout follows a story about the relationship that appeared in The Post on Sunday. It described how Giant and CVS Corp. are among thousands of pharmacies nationwide that have started sending data to Elensys Inc. of Woburn, Mass., a database marketing specialist, in an effort to boost drug sales and improve patients' health.

Elensys uses information from pharmacies to send personalized letters -- written on pharmacy letterhead but often paid for by pharmaceutical companies -- that remind customers to refill prescriptions or pitch products to customers with particular ailments.

Dozens of angry customers have called officials at both Giant and CVS to complain, company officials said. Privacy specialists said the practice raised new questions about patient confidentiality and also blurs the line between medicine and marketing.

While CVS plans to continue its program, officials there are now referring customers who don't want to receive the refill reminders and promotional mailings to a toll-free number so they can opt out. And spokesman Frederick McGrail said CVS will use Elensys only in a very limited way, as a "mailing house" for reminders and some drug information.

"We believe these programs help our patients," said McGrail, adding that CVS limits the information it sends to Elensys. He stressed that CVS does not sell any patient information or provide patient profiles. "In the case of Elensys, we have strict confidentiality agreements with everybody who would be involved," he said.

Top Giant executives decided early Monday to sever ties with Elensys because of the intensity of customer reaction, said spokesman Barry F. Scher. At least 75 people called corporate offices, an extraordinary number for a single issue, Scher said, and dozens of others called stores directly.

"The customer response to our plans was extremely negative, and because of privacy concerns we decided to discontinue... Our phones rang off the hooks," Scher said. "It was very clear to us at the outset that customers are very worried about maintaining privacy regarding their medical information, and that they did not want a third party to have access."

Giant officials this week are personally telephoning and apologizing to customers such as Elizabeth Black of Rockville, who complained that the effort was an invasion of privacy. Black said in an interview that the customer service clerk from Giant apologized profusely and called the program "an error in judgment."

"I don't trust a marketing firm to keep this confidential," said Black, a graphic artist who said she was worried about how sensitive medical information could be misused. "It's like your medical records are laid bare."

Elensys officials declined to comment.

Regulators and privacy specialists said yesterday that they weren't surprised by the vehement reaction.

"People assume that their medical information, including prescription information, is held in the strictest confidence," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer group in San Diego. "When that information is shared with a third party, they're surprised and outraged."

Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah), sponsor of the proposed Medical Information Protection Act, said such sharing has become a growing problem that has to be curbed legislatively. "That's one of the practices my bill is designed to prevent. It's inappropriate," Bennett said.

The Virginia House and Senate this week passed different versions of a bill that would expand prohibitions against the release of confidential prescription information by pharmacists, pharmacy owners, insurers and others who have access to the data.

"Virginia is on the way, hopefully, to preventing or at least limiting this kind of traffic in confidential information," said Sen. Joseph V. Gartlan Jr. (D-Fairfax), the sponsor of the Senate bill.

"People don't like the fact they're being solicited with what they believe is confidential information," said Del. S. Chris Jones (R-Suffolk), a pharmacist and sponsor of the House bill. "People I've talked to would feel violated."