Last week's column on California legislation that would allow drugstores to share people's prescription-drug records with mass-mailers clearly struck a chord with readers. And I'm glad to say it resonated with lawmakers as well.
The bill -- SB 1096, written by state Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) -- was approved by the Senate on May 29. But it hit a brick wall Tuesday when it failed to garner a single vote of support in the Assembly Health Committee.
Calderon reserved the right to resubmit his bill in the future. But his chief of staff, Rocky Rushing, subsequently acknowledged that the legislation wouldn't be coming back, at least not in its present form.
"The bill is dead," he said. "It was voted down."
In presenting the legislation Tuesday, Calderon described it as a boon to consumers, especially those with chronic medical conditions. He said it would allow drugstores to send letters to people reminding them to take their medication or refill a prescription.
Calderon said the bill was inspired by his mother, who he said died several years ago from a stroke after failing to take her prescribed meds.
"I take the issue of medical privacy very seriously," he said. "I just want people to take their medications."
If that was his goal, his bill was a consumer-unfriendly way of accomplishing it.
The bill's "source" was a company called Adheris Inc., which used to be known as Elensys Care Services Inc. The company changed its name after it came to light in 1998 that CVS and other pharmacies were sending people's medical info to Elensys without their permission.
Adheris is owned by InVentiv Health Inc., a New Jersey company that says it provides "a comprehensive range of clinical, communications and commercialization services to take pharma products from development through launch to commercial success."
One problem with Calderon's bill was its lack of transparency about who would pay for the reminder letters, and which patients would get them. Calderon originally told me that Adheris is paid by drugstores to handle communications on their behalf.
He acknowledged Tuesday that drug companies "at times" reimburse pharmacies for their expenses.
That's putting it mildly. Adheris Chairman Mike Evanisko testified before the state Senate's Health Committee in March that funding for the company's activities frequently comes from drug makers.
"The pharmaceutical companies sponsor these programs and [on] some occasions they pay us and we reimburse the chains for their expenses," he said. "And in some cases, the pharmaceutical companies who sponsor these pay the chains, and the chains pay us for providing the service."
Evanisko also said Adheris might reimburse drugstores for "printing, postage, maintaining the databases, transferring information to us" -- in other words, everything the drugstores are ostensibly paying Adheris to do.
"This bill is about opening the door to the pharmaceuticals," Assemblywoman Mary Salas (D-Chula Vista) said Tuesday. "The pharmaceuticals want to be able to directly communicate with patients."
Jeff Krinsk, a San Diego attorney who is suing Adheris on behalf of consumers whose prescription information was provided by Albertsons Inc., told me that not only are drug companies paying Adheris and drugstores to fund the letters, they're also choosing which patients receive reminders.
"They only do it for the drugs that are most profitable," he said. "The decision is made by the pharmaceutical companies."
The reason, Krinsk said, is that pharmaceutical companies want to maintain brand awareness among patients taking expensive drugs and deter them from seeking lower-priced generic alternatives.
"The case can be made that there's an educational component to reminder letters that serves the public interest," he said. "But that isn't what's happening here."
A number of lawmakers expressed reservations Tuesday about a provision of Calderon's bill that would have required consumers to opt out if they didn't want letters. Failure to opt out would mean Adheris and other such companies would have full access to your drug records.
"If there were an opt-in policy, it would be different," said Assemblyman Alan Nakanishi (R-Lodi).
Calderon told me last week that asking people to opt in wouldn't work. If given a choice upfront, he said, most people would say no.
Readers were outraged by the proposed legislation. I received dozens of e-mails opposing the bill, and more than 70 similar comments were posted on The Times' website.
"Do I want my prescription drug records shared with mailing firms? Two words -- hell no!" declared Elaine Ramirez. "It is nobody's business but mine and my doctor's what medication I am taking."
Stanton resident Sandra Stubban echoed this sentiment. "I don't need, or want, a reminder from some pharmaceutical company to know when my prescription needs refilling," she said. "It's very simple: When I get down to the last seven pills, it's time to reorder."
Voting against SB 1096 Tuesday were Committee Chairman Mervyn Dymally (D-Compton), Vice Chairman Nakanishi, Patty Berg (D-Eureka), Ted Gaines (R-Roseville), Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View), Fiona Ma (D-San Francisco), Salas and Jim Silva (R-Huntington Beach).
All other members either didn't vote or were absent.
In a statement, Calderon blamed the demise of his bill on "a deceptive campaign of misinformation."
"I've read so many inaccuracies in the press and heard so many conspiracy theories about SB 1096 that if I believed it all, I too would have voted against it," he said.
According to public records, Calderon has received at least $89,000 in contributions from drug companies and pharmacy chains since 2002.
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