When the private sector needs a nudge from the public

Pharmacy legislation

Anthem Blue Cross backed off a plan to require some policyholders to buy their prescription drugs from a single mail-order pharmacy after I reported in January that this could violate California law.

Now a state lawmaker wants to make sure this doesn't happen again, sponsoring legislation that would prohibit drugstores from participating in any such plans.

The bill, AB 299, introduced by Assemblyman Chris Holden (D-Pasadena), passed the Assembly's Business, Professions and Consumer Protections Committee this week. Its next stop is the Assembly Health Committee.

"I have no problem with voluntary use of mail-order pharmacies," Holden told me. "I do have a problem with making it mandatory."

Anthem, California's largest for-profit health insurer, said in November that it was imposing the new rule for so-called specialty medications used to treat major illnesses, such as cancer and HIV/AIDS. The company said the limitation would help keep costs down for patients and businesses.

The problem with Anthem's view is that California's Unruh Civil Rights Act specifies that all people must be treated equally "no matter what their sex, race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status or sexual orientation."

Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris said that any rule that forces some people to buy their meds from one drugstore but allows others to shop elsewhere could violate the law.

Holden's bill still would allow people to shop for drugs online or by mail and it still would allow insurers to offer lower prices to people who order their meds online. But it would be up to the patient to decide whether to participate in any such programs.

It shouldn't be necessary to bar pharmacies from joining no-choice drug plans, but Anthem spokesman Darrel Ng told me the insurer still believes such plans are legal. So Holden's additional safeguard appears necessary to ensure that consumers are protected.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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