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Letters or phone calls from local pharmacies reminding consumers to renew their prescriptions often are disguised sales pitches by drug manufacturers. That is one of several allegations in a spate of invasion of privacy and misrepresentation suits filed in four states against some of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains and drug companies. The most recent suit, by the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, as a private attorney general, alleges that Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Inc. and their pharmacies, such as Savon and Osco, along with multiple Doe defendants, took part in a conspiracy that began with Albertsons searching its prescription database for a fee on behalf of drug companies. The companies then allegedly targeted customers for direct mailings and phone calls from Albertsons, which encouraged the continued use of a drug or a switch to a different drug. Utility Consumer Action Network on Behalf of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse v. Albertsons, No. GIC 830069 (San Diego Co., Calif., Super. Ct.). The Clearinghouse suit is the first brought by a consumer advocacy group, said the plaintiff’s counsel, Jeffrey Krinsk of San Diego’s Finkelstein & Krinsk. “We’ve served 17 Doe drug manufacturers.” In a motion to dismiss and for sanctions filed last week, Albertsons denied that the allegations had a “factual or legal basis.” It also noted that it had “stopped its refill reminder program,” although it claimed its conduct had been neither unlawful nor tortious. Albertsons is represented by Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s Los Angeles office. In Florida, Krinsk sued Eckerd Corp. and Walgreen Co., so far settling with Eckerd under undisclosed terms, he said. Eckerd settled with the state while under investigation by the Florida Attorney General’s Office for having customers sign a form acknowledging receipt of a prescription, which also authorized the release of information to Eckerd for marketing purposes. Eckerd suspended the practice and, without admitting liability, donated $1 million to endow an ethics chair at a school of pharmacy. “There is an active investigation into Walgreens under the deceptive and unfair trade practices act,” said JoAnn Carrin, communications director for Florida Attorney General Charlie Crist. Also, Massachusetts’ highest court refused to decertify a class in a case against CVS Corp. and several drug companies. Weld v. Glaxo Wellcome, 434 Mass. 81 (2001). The court said the manufacturers provided CVS with criteria designed to identify customers with particular medical conditions based on their prescription histories. The manufacturers provided the content of the letters sent to customers by CVS, which promoted various courses of action, the court said. CVS suspended the program, it noted. Krinsk also sued CVS in Rhode Island, he said. Some suits, though not Albertsons, allege that customers are encouraged to switch to another manufacturer’s product. In Albertsons, there is an allegation that a manufacturer reminded patients to refill a heartburn medication that had exhausted its patent protection, but also suggested that the patients try a “free seven-day supply” of its new, more expensive patented heartburn product. Clearinghouse Director Beth Given scoffed at Albertsons’ claim that it merely had a prescription reminder program. “If the pharmacy were intent on reminding about your prescriptions, they would send you letters about each and every medication that you purchased from them,” she said. “But the reminders that you receive are only for those paid for by the pharmaceutical companies that participate in the drug-marketing program.” Karen Ramos, an Albertsons spokeswoman, said her company has never sold its customers’ private information.

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