Business

Pharmacy loyalty program ban riles point collectors

Many pharmacy customers go to Safeway or Shopper
Many pharmacy customers go to Safeway or Shopper's Drug Mart to collect points through loyalty programs. But the college of pharmacists wants to ban the offerings as inducements that could harm patients.
— image credit: Jeff Nagel / Black Press

Pharmacies in B.C. may soon be banned from giving out loyalty points to customers if a proposed reform is approved.

The College of Pharmacists of British Columbia wants to block pharmacies such as Shopper's Drug Mart and Canada Safeway from awarding points to their loyalty card holders out of concern the bonuses spur some patients to make poor decisions.

The regulatory body argues loyalty points are a powerful lure for some customers, who may wait longer than they should to fill a prescription in order to get a bigger points bonus offered at a later date.

"These delays could negatively impact on that patient’s health and cause serious short- and long-term effects," according to the college.

"Pharmacists have seen examples of patients making choices based on the inducement, contrary to what is best for their health."

It also says patients with third-party insurance who don't pay out of pocket may keep refilling a prescription after they no longer need it in order to collect more points.

The college calls it a drain on limited health care dollars and says drugs that are never used by the intended patient may be abused by others or diverted to the illegal drug trade.

Privacy is also an issue – the pharmacists' body argues data on a customer's pharmacy spending frequency shouldn't be used by company loyalty programs to build marketing profiles, even though data on actual medical conditions and drug purchases are kept confidential.

Once the temptation of points is eliminated, the college says, patients may be more likely to choose a pharmacy and pharmacist based on their own merits, not their ability to issue inducements.

Air Miles and Shopper's Optimum point collectors have been campaigning against the proposal, saying loyalty programs provide a small bonus on the thousands of dollars some patients with chronic diseases pay for medication each year.

"We spend our money to pay for our prescriptions, therefore why can we not earn rewards for it?" Safeway shopper Jaime Kichok asked on Facebook. "What makes a prescription purchase any different than any other purchase? It's really because the small independent pharmacies can't compete. Why is that our problem and why are we being penalized for it?"

Air Miles Canada calls the proposal "unfair to customers" and anti-competitive, while Safeway says it sees no evidence Air Miles collecting harms patients.

People have until Dec. 28 to comment on the proposed ban on the college of pharmacists website (www.bcpharmacists.org) before the college's board decides whether to push ahead.

B.C.'s health minister Margaret MacDiarmid will have the final say on whether the ban is imposed.

The proposed reform mirrors similar steps taken in Ontario and Quebec and it's also under consideration in Alberta.

B.C. already banned pharmacies from offering points or other inducements on the portion of prescriptions covered by PharmaCare since mid-2011.

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