Court okays ban on pharmacy reward points

Prescriptions blocked from B.C. supermarket loyalty programs

Major supermarket chains have lost a court battle to continue offering their pharmacy customers loyalty reward points on prescription drugs in B.C.

A B.C. Court of Appeal ruling Wednesday upholds the power of the College of Pharmacists of B.C. to enforce its two-year-old ban on incentive programs like Air Miles and other loyalty rewards.

The decision, which overturned a B.C. Supreme Court ruling last year that initially struck down the ban, says inducements from pharmacists are “a matter of public interest and professional standards” for the college, which can prohibit incentives without clear proof of harm to customers.

The pharmacists’ regulatory body, which imposed the ban in late 2013, had argued loyalty points are a powerful lure for consumers that can alter their medication buying habits and potentially harm their health.

“The College considers the provision of incentives like redeemable points to be unethical, unsafe and unprofessional,” registrar Bob Nakagawa said.

“Pharmacists are medication experts, and sometimes the right thing for them to do is not dispense a drug. A patient’s motivation to collect redeemable points may inappropriately encourage drug use and can put their health at risk.”

One of the objections raised by the college was that insured patients who don’t pay out of pocket might continue to refill a prescription after they no longer need it just to collect more points and the unneeded drugs may be abused or diverted to the illegal drug trade.

The case included anecdotal evidence that the top priority of some customers was to find out how many points they’d get filling a prescription rather than information on proper use or health effects.

There were also allegations of pharmacists retroactively dispensing medication to patients who had already missed past days but were eager to get the points “thus generating further revenue for the pharmacist for drugs the patient does not need.”

The ruling is a defeat for Sobey’s and Jace Holdings, the companies that operate Safeway and Thrifty Foods stores. Shoppers Drug Mart Inc. was also an intervenor in the case.

A Sobeys representative said the company is disappointed with the court’s decision and considering its options.

Incentives have long been forbidden on methadone prescriptions as well as any Pharmacare-covered prescriptions.

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