And You Thought a Prescription Was Private
By MILT FREUDENHEIM August 9, 2009
MORE than 10 years after she tried without success to have a baby, Marcy Campbell Krinsk is still receiving painful reminders in her mail. The ads and promotions started after she bought fertility drugs at a pharmacy in San Diego.
Marketers got hold of her name, and she found coupons and samples in her mail that shadowed the growth of an imaginary child - at first, for Pampers and baby formula, then for discounts on family photos, and all the way through the years to gifts suitable for an elementary school graduate.
"I had three different in vitro procedures," said Ms. Krinsk, now 55, a former telecommunications executive who lives with her husband in San Diego. "To just go to the mailbox and get that stuff, time after time after time, it was just awful."
Like many other people, Ms. Krinsk thought that her prescription information was private. But in fact, prescriptions, and all the information on them - including not only the name and dosage of the drug and the name and address of the doctor, but also the patient's address and Social Security number - are a commodity bought and sold in a murky marketplace, often without the patients' knowledge or permission.
That may change if some little-noted protections from the Obama administration are strictly enforced. The federal stimulus law enacted in February prohibits in most cases the sale of personal health information, with a few exceptions for research and public health measures like tracking flu epidemics. It also tightens rules for telling patients when hackers or health care workers have stolen their Social Security numbers or medical information, as happened to Britney Spears, Maria Shriver and Farrah Fawcett before she died in June.