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Investigation leads to prescription privacy changes

The nations' largest pharmacy chains responded to our investigation by promising big changes, but did they keep them?

Bob Segall/Eyewitness News

Indianapolis - This year, 13 Investigates uncovered a disturbing problem at local drugstores. In fact, we showed you how pharmacies all over the country put you and your family at risk by tossing your private health information in the trash. The nations' largest pharmacy chains responded to our investigation by promising big changes.

It's the sound of change and the sound of security brought on by a six month Eyewitness News investigation. 13 Investigates has been rechecking every local drugstore that failed our prescription privacy test. Dumpsters at all twenty-two pharmacies now get a passing grade thanks to steel, iron, wire and wood.

Every Walgreens dumpster we checked this week is now locked, in some cases double locked, just as the company had promised.

You might remember one Walgreens dumpster where this summer we pulled dozens of patients records out of the trash. Now that dumpster isn't sitting out in the open. It's inside a newly-built brick structure, a garbage garage you might call it, complete with a brand new padlocked fence. All of it installed by Walgreens since our last report.

Local CVS stores have installed lock bars and padlocks on all of their dumpsters, and at many locations, there are now signs posted, although it's not clear whether these are meant to keep away intruders, or reporters, or perhaps both.

Small independent drugstores have made changes too. Low Cost Rx used to leave it's dumpster wide open and now it is securely locked.

At Tucker Pharmacy, the dumpster is still sitting out in the open with no lock and no fence. But now, instead of finding hundreds of patient records in the trash every label has been removed. 13 Investigates found pill bottles that had been carefully inspected before being thrown away.

Clearly, drugstores are getting the message and they want their customers to know it. Outside one local pharmacy, a banner to let customers know how it fared in our test.

The change at Indianapolis pharmacies has been dramatic. This week we've checked dozens of dumpsters and this time around, we didn't find a single patient record, not even one. Good news in Indianapolis, but what about the thousands of drugstores in other parts of the country? Will we see changes there too?

"I don't think a few padlocks are going to be the solution to this problem longterm," said Professor Steven Vibbert.

Vibbert is a professor of public relations at Butler University. He says the nation's pharmacies have lots of incentive to make even greater changes.

Especially since Channel 13's investigation made national headlines. Earlier this month, WTHR's Prescription Privacy Test was reported by hundreds of newspapers, TV networks, radio stations and business magazines all over the country. Many of those reports focused on changes promised by the drugstores.

"The national media attention will probably ensure that they have become awakened to the fact that their current way to do business can't continue," said Vibbert. "And it increases the likelihood that within the organization this will become a value."

Of course, pharmacies have another reason to make sure they make the changes promised. State and federal regulators have opened their own investigations because of what 13 Investigates found in drugstore dumpsters. Those investigations will determine whether pharmacies face fines or other penalties. If more violations were discovered in the trash, that certainly would not bode well for drugstores at a time when they are trying to reassure both regulators and customers.

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