Walgreens still under investigation by OCR

Dom Nicastro of HealthLeaders Media reports:

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) confirmed this week its investigation into the nation’s largest drugstore chain, Walgreens, based on the same television media reports that led to million-dollar settlements with CVS and Rite Aid for potential HIPAA violations.

The investigation stems from a 2006 series of articles by WTHR in Indiana. Earlier coverage of the case can be found in the archives of PogoWasRight.org and on this site by searching for CVS, Walgreens, and RiteAid.

I’m not sure why this confirmation is really “news,” however, as we had a statement from the Indiana Attorney General’s Office over a year ago that indicated that OCR was investigating Walgreens. It seems most likely that both the FTC and OCR have teamed up on this investigation as they did with CVS and RiteAid and that eventually we may see statements from both agencies.

If Walgreens gets fined, that would make it a trifecta, as the second and third largest pharmacy chains (CVS and RiteAid) have already been fined for similar charges of improper disposal of protected health information.

In July 2009, Walgreens settled with the Indiana Attorney General’s Office over the state’s charges of improper disposal of PHI. The state’s charges were triggered by the same media reports that presumably have resulted in this federal investigation.

The state’s settlement of charges that had been filed in 2007 required Walgreens to agree to implement extensive employee training, management policies and detailed reporting to provide greater safeguards so that customers’ personal information would not be improperly disclosed. Under the agreement, Walgreens paid $6,000.00 to cover the cost of the state’s investigation. To date, however, Walgreens has escaped the kind of significant penalties CVS and RiteAid were given by the federal government.

At the time of the Indiana settlement, Walgreens issued the following statement:

“We are glad to reach this agreement and believe we have always followed HIPAA standards. We have sound practices and policies that protect our patients’ information, and we will continue to adhere to them.”

Not a very impressive statement after the media exposed all the improper disposal, and I guess the federal government was as unconvinced that I was that Walgreens has always followed HIPAA standards.

But does it really take years to investigate these complaints? Wouldn’t actions and penalties by the FTC and OCR be somewhat more effective if they were more timely and might serve as a deterrent to others?

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