All businesses want people as repeat customers. And when it comes to drugstores, that means they want you to keep refilling prescriptions.
But you'd think they'd ask first before signing you up for automatic refills and billing your insurer.
In the case of CVS Pharmacy, the country's second-largest drugstore chain, after Walgreens, the official policy is that customers' approval is always sought before people are enrolled in the company's ReadyFill program.
But B.G. Stine, 52, of Torrance had a decidedly different experience when he stopped by a CVS branch to fill a couple of prescriptions for his brother, Mike, who has Parkinson's disease.
Normally, Stine said, he gets Mike's prescriptions filled at the in-house pharmacy of his 64-year-old sibling's retirement community in Seal Beach. But the pharmacy was able to fill only two of the four prescriptions during a recent visit, so Stine headed over to the nearby CVS.
He said he handed the CVS pharmacist the prescriptions and waited about 15 minutes. The pharmacist then had him sign a clipboard to show that he'd received the drugs, and that was that.
A month later, it was time to get the prescriptions refilled. Stine went, as usual, to the retirement community's pharmacy to pick up the drugs.
This time, the pharmacist informed him that he'd have to pay the full $600 price for the medications that had been out of stock last time. CVS apparently had already filled the prescriptions and billed Mike's insurer.
"I couldn't believe it," Stine told me. "They just went ahead and did it, locking us out of having insurance cover it anywhere else."
He said he immediately returned to the CVS branch and asked to see the manager. She explained, Stine recalled, that Mike had agreed to enroll in CVS' ReadyFill program when he got his prescriptions filled last time.
"I informed her that he couldn't have done that because it was me who'd picked up the medicine, and I never agreed to anything like that," Stine said. "The manager's face just went blank. It seemed like this wasn't the first time she was hearing this complaint."
The manager promptly canceled Mike's ReadyFill account. But Stine still found this a bitter pill to swallow.
"Maybe some people wouldn't be upset by something like this," he said. "Maybe they'd find it convenient. But I don't like being automatically enrolled in anything that I didn't ask for."
This smacks of the old telephone-industry practice of "slamming," in which people would be signed up for a phone service they didn't want. Slamming is now illegal under federal law.
Mike DeAngelis, a CVS spokesman, said the company doesn't condone enrolling people in ReadyFill without their say-so.
"The way the program is supposed to work is that it's on an opt-in basis," he said. "The pharmacist is supposed to have a conversation with the customer about their maintenance medications, and then the customer can decide whether to enroll in the program."
Be that as it may, a quick online search reveals that CVS has been down this road before.
The Consumerist website posted a statement in 2009 from an anonymous "veteran pharmacist" at CVS accusing some company workers of deliberately signing up people for ReadyFill to meet performance quotas set by the head office.
"I approached my district manager with the fact that the store was auto-enrolling prescriptions, which I felt could be an issue down the line," the pharmacist wrote. "He didn't care because as soon as they started doing that, they started making the number needed to satisfy the metric."
I can't speak to the veracity of the above claim, but it's striking that such allegations were being publicly made several years ago and that an identical situation has cropped up now.
It's also remarkable that, according to Stine, the CVS pharmacy manager in Seal Beach insisted that Stine's brother had voluntarily signed up for the program, as per the drugstore's rules, even though the brother had never been in contact with the branch.
CVS' DeAngelis denied that any production quotas exist for ReadyFill. But he acknowledged that no signature is required from customers to enroll in ReadyFill.
The way things stand, a pharmacist signs up people via computer. There are no forms or written authorizations.
This is obviously a problem, as Stine's experience makes clear. While CVS' official policy may be that the customer calls all the shots for ReadyFill, an unscrupulous (or bonus-minded) company worker can easily cut corners and sign up anyone without his or her knowledge.
DeAngelis said CVS will think about this. But what's to think about?
The problem disappears if customers are required to sign something before enrolling in ReadyFill, which should be standard practice for any product as important as prescription medications.
Every day that CVS dawdles in making such a change is another day the company seems to be saying that customers are taking their chances any time they get a prescription filled.
David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org