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College of Pharmacists seeks to ban loyalty programs at pharmacies

For more than 30 years, Burnaby's Corinne Bergdal has been a regular at pharmacies to fill insulin prescriptions to stay alive.

Now 42, she figures she now spends $5,000 to $6,000 a year to refill her insulin pump and buy related supplies to manage her Type 1 diabetes.

When she participated in a loyalty program, a small silver lining, if you could call it that, was she earned points that she could use to save money on other products in the store.

Now the College of Pharmacists of British Columbia is proposing to prohibit such programs, which include Air Miles at Safeway and Optimum points at Shoppers Drug Mart.

"The decision was made on the basis of what is in the interest of public health and safety," said Mykle Ludvigsen, spokesman for the college. He noted that Ontario and Quebec also prohibit such programs and Alberta is at the same stage in its proposal to enact a ban.

Ludvigsen said the college has anecdotal reports of people making decisions about their medications, such as when to fill a prescription, based on how many loyalty points they can earn. "We do know that it happens."

There's also a chance that if their medications are fully covered by extended health or other plans people might fill prescriptions to get the points even if their doctor has told them they don't need to take the drugs anymore, he said.

In such cases, the drugs might be taken by mistake or end up on the street.

"This isn't good for anyone," he said. "We're taking action to prevent this from happening."

And while medical conditions and drug purchases are kept confidential, Ludvigsen said loyalty programs still require the collection of basic information such as the amount, date and time of the purchase which they use in their marketing efforts aimed at the participating customer. That's something the college opposes.

The proposal is part of a larger number of proposed bylaw changes for the college which is nearing the end of its 90-day period for collecting feedback. The public has until Dec. 28 to comment on the proposals.

Ludvigsen said based on the number of comments it has already received, the college expects to see a few thousand people to provide feedback before the deadline.

Once the feedback is reviewed, the board of the college will make its final decision in February, with the Minister of Health having the final say by May.

Canada Safeway, which has been encouraging customers to provide feedback,  opposes the proposal.

"Safeway has been issuing Air Miles in connection with prescription sales for 20 years and has never received any complaint or been made aware of any harm to patient care," said John Graham, the company's director of public affairs and government relations, in an emailed statement.

"Loyalty programs are a marketing tool retail pharmacies use in a competitive marketplace. Safeway strongly believes that prohibiting loyalty programs would severely restrict competition which is not in the public interest."

Programs such as Air Miles "are seen as a bonus within this relationship [with the customer] that often otherwise involves trying health challenges. Safeway believes that taking away this right is simply unfair to our customers."

Bergdal said such a change would have little impact on people who might only fill one or two prescriptions a year. But for those managing chronic diseases like diabetes, such incentives encourage people to stick to one pharmacy which is "not only good for the patient because they're having a continuity of care, but you are getting something marginal compared to what you're spending."

When Bergdal collected points at Shoppers Drug Mart she was able to use them to buy other products in the store. She only switched pharmacies because a lack of extended health coverage meant she had to find one where her medications were less expensive.

As for the college's safety concerns, she said people would have to be pretty calculating to place their loyalty points collection as a higher priority than their health.

"If I don't have insulin I'm not going to be around."

To comment on the proposed change, visit http://bit.ly/ZPvD0B.

wchow@burnabynewsleader.com

twitter.com/WandaChow

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