Law Enforcement Exploiting Pharmacies to Covertly Obtain Patients’ Medical Records

A Senate Finance Committee inquiry revealed on Tuesday that police departments can access private medical information from pharmacies without a warrant. HIPAA may protect some personally identifiable health data, but it does not stop cops, according to a letter from Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Pramila Jayapal and Sara Jacobs to the Department of Health and Human Services. None of the major US pharmacies are taking action, according to the members of Congress.

“All of the pharmacies surveyed stated that they do not require a warrant prior to sharing pharmacy records with law enforcement agents, unless there is a state law that dictates otherwise,” the letter said. “Those pharmacies will turn medical records over in response to a mere subpoena, which often do not have to be reviewed or signed by a judge prior to being issued.”

The committee reached out to Amazon, Cigna, CVS Health, The Kroger Company, Optum Rx, Rite Aid Corporation, Walgreens Boots Alliance and Walmart about their practices for sharing medical data with police. While Amazon, Cigna, Optum, Walmart, and Walgreens said they have law enforcement requests reviewed by legal professionals before complying, CVS Health, The Kroger Company, and Rite Aid Corporation said they ask in-store staff to process the request immediately. Engadget reached out to the pharmacies mentioned in the letter about the claims. CVS said its pharmacy staff are trained to handle these inquiries and its following all applicable laws around the issue. Walgreens said it has a process in place to assess law enforcement requests compliant with those laws, too, and Amazon said while the law enforcement requests are rare, it does notify patients and comply with court orders when applicable. The others either haven’t responded or refuse to comment.

The pharmacies mostly blamed the current lack of legislative protections for patient data for their willingness to comply with cop requests. Most of them told the committee that current HIPAA law and other policies let them disclose medical records in response to certain legal requests. That’s why the Senate Finance Committee is targeting HHS to strengthen these protections, especially since the 2023 Dobbs decision let states criminalize certain reproductive health decisions.

Under current HIPAA law, patients have the right to know who is accessing their health information. But individuals have to request the medical record disclosure data, instead of health care professionals being required to share it proactively. “Consequently, few people ever request such information, even though many would obviously be concerned to learn about disclosures of their private medical records to law enforcement agencies,” the letter states. The letter also urges pharmacies to change their policies to require a warrant, and publish transparency reports about how data is shared.