Business

Loyalty point ban hits B.C. pharmacies

Pharmacy shoppers can no longer collect loyalty points on prescription drug purchases after a ban imposed by the College of Pharmacists of B.C. - File
Pharmacy shoppers can no longer collect loyalty points on prescription drug purchases after a ban imposed by the College of Pharmacists of B.C.
— image credit: File

B.C. pharmacies are now banned from handing out loyalty reward points to customers for prescription drug purchases.

The measure – effective Dec. 2 – is already drawing outrage from shoppers and has sparked a legal challenge from Canada Safeway and Thrifty Foods, both arms of the Sobeys group that offer popular loyalty card points.

The College of Pharmacists of B.C. first proposed a ban in 2012 but shelved it amid strong public opposition.

However, the college's board re-examined the issue after the provincial election and unanimously approved the ban Sept. 20, arguing loyalty points are a powerful lure that can alter some shoppers' buying habits and potentially harm their health.

The bylaw prohibits various gifts, rebates, refunds and other incentives, not just loyalty points.

The college says such incentives are inappropriate "kickbacks" to customers.

"After careful consideration, the College still firmly believes that paying patients for prescriptions is unprofessional, unethical and unsafe," it states on its website.

The college argues some patients may go without their medicine until they can fill a prescription on a loyalty point bonus day.

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

The college calls that a drain on limited health care dollars and says drugs not used by the intended patient may be abused by others or diverted to the illegal drug trade.

It says paying customers a kickback undermines pharmacists' integrity and the credibility of the profession.

"Patients do not expect to receive payments for other health services they receive, and drug therapy should not be the exception to that rule."

The college hopes a points ban will result in patients choosing a pharmacy or pharmacist on their own merits, not inducements.

Some patients on Canada Safeway's Facebook page said they may switch to closer pharmacies as a result of the ban on issuing Air Miles points for prescriptions at Safeway.

Victoria senior Randy McEwen said he doubts anyone would delay filling prescriptions for the sake of a bonus.

"Most Canadians are smart enough to make rational decisions," said McEwen, who uses prescription points to fly his children in from Edmonton. "This ban discriminates against the elderly and the chronically ill. Why would you let me collect points on gas or banking but not on prescription drugs?"

Canada Safeway and Thrifty Foods are slated to be in court next week seeking an injunction.

They argue the incentives ban mainly targets larger chains and unfairly props up smaller independent pharmacies.

"There is no evidence that incentives pose a risk to patient care or safety, or that they undermine the ethical conduct of pharmacists," said the Sobeys petition in B.C. Supreme Court.

Exempted from the ban are free or discounted parking or delivery services, and payment by credit or debit cards that generate loyalty benefits.

Similar reforms have been enacted in Ontario and Quebec. B.C. has banned point awards on Pharmacare-covered prescriptions since 2011.

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