ALA + Walgreens = ?

a few emails from ALA Councilor At Large Jessamyn West



Intro & Background

On May 28, 2004, ALA issued a press release stating that they would be partnering with Walgreens pharmacy, ostensibly to "...promote consumer health education and libraries as sources of accurate, reliable health information." Walgreens press release talks more about Walgreens. I don't want to get into the Drug Discount Card debate/fiasco except to say that Walgreens, the largest drugstore in the country, is one of 70 organizations that offer drug discount cards. Some of the other discount cards are accepted at Walgreens, most are not. The drug discount card policy is perplexing and confusing. The cards cost $30. The cards are optional, and many believe that they represent bad policy on the part of the Bush administration. Seniors will only get discounts on medications if they get a card that is appropriate to the medications that they are taking; there is no automatic discount. Determining which card to get, if any, is one of the challenges facing seniors this year.

Public libraries have begun to receive these information pamphlets being distributed through this partnership. The pamphlet itself [91K pdf] comes from the US Government Health and Human Sevices division and is "co-branded" with the ALA and Walgreens logos. It advertises that "there's a new way to save on prescription drugs right now" and does not mention that the savings are widely variable and in fact may not materialize at all.

While I realize that republishing my emails here may verge on the nutty and self-aggrandizing, I believe that I made some useful points on the Council mailing list that are worth restating here. Since I represent the "at large" membership of ALA, this method of delivery seems possibly appropriate. My general feeling is that ALA placing their name on drug discount card information along with one drugstore's name gives the erroneous impression that the information in the pamphlet is objective and that the information is factual. In short, it strongly implies that the information [and, by extention, Walgreens] is "reputable" according to ALA. It may also imply that ALA supports the drug discount cards which is not a position that I believe ALA has taken, or should take.

Please note that I am not the only one commenting on this issue, but I do not feel authorized to reprint the words of other Councilors. There has been some lively discussion of this issue from many different vantage points on the Council list. Anyone who is an ALA member who would like to read the full discussion can log in via this page to gain access. Guests can use this interface which is clumsy but does work.

I have written two emails to the Council list on this topic. One dated June 15th and one dated June 17th 2004

Date: Tue, 15 Jun 2004 05:24:39 -0700 (PDT)
From: Jessamyn West
To: ALA Council List
Subject: [list forward elided] ALA/Walgreens partnership

I would like some more information from ALA staffers regarding the Walgreens relationship, specifically:
  1. What sort of "deal" did ALA get on this to support one drug discount card provider over others? What is the nature of this agreement?
  2. Why ALA feels that this arrangement preferencing one of 70+ drug discount cards is appropriate given librarians' general charge of providing access to unbiased sources of good information?
To my mind, this is the equivalent of the American Medical Association giving their approval to specific brands of orange juice [ed note: see below, I had this fact a little wrong]. By putting our logo on these pamphlets, I feel that we are tacitly saying "We agree with the information that is contained here" or "This pamphlet contains good information" My feeling, based on at least some research, is that these cards are a big promotion from the current administration making a confusing set of medical benefits even more mystifying unecessarily. Consumer groups are claiming that these big promised savings aren't even necessarily appearing and that seniors must choose very carefully to figure out what card is right for them, if any are. The AARP -- who was against this medicare reform from the start -- says
"...there's no great advantage in being an early adopter. You may indeed save more money throughout the next year-and-a-half by taking your time and selecting a card carefully, says AARP's Ginzler. Choose the wrong one, however, and you could find yourself out the $30 enrollment fee and still paying full price for your medications."
Drugstores like Walgreen's, however, have a vested interest in getting people signed up early and making the process of "choosing" as easy as possible [as long as people choose them] while their card may not be what is best for seniors.

I think that if ALA wants to provide solid access to good information about the new drug discount cards, that's a good thing to do, but partnering with one pharmacy seriously compromises our objectivity and our reputation as providers of unbiased information to our patrons.

From: jessamyn@...
Subject: Sponsorships, further reading
Date: June 17, 2004 9:56:15 AM EDT
To: alacoun@...

> On the other hand, public library directors certainly savvy enough to
> evaluate printed materials provided for public distribution. We, as do
> all libraries, do it every day in our collection development activities.
> If an individual library chooses to drop the brochures in their
> wastebasket or to place them on the information rack that should be a
> local decision.

Just a little further reading on the larger sponsorship issue. One thing we want to consider is whether these sponsorships or partnerships are seen as giving a "seal of approval" look to a product or service. Some large organizations do this, such as the American Heart Association's "heart check" program. People wanting to be a part of this program have to verify that their foods meet certain nutritional requirements and then they can pay $7,500 per product with a $4,500 renewal fee each year to have their product carry the logo. Such "heart friendly" products include Fruity Marshmallow Krispies and Low-Fat Pop Tarts.

The American Medical Association got into a bit of a bind when they put their logo on Sunbeam home health products in exchange for millions of dollars in royalties. The products were not evaluated by the AMA and were not "technically" endorsements but how would the average consumer know that? Due to public outcry the AMA had to discontinue this program, settle a breach of contract suit, and looked bad as a result.

The American Dental Association has a more rigorous program for putting their seal on toothpastes and other dental care products "To earn the ADA seal, products are subjected to a rigorous review; more than 30% don't make the cut. Once accepted, companies must also submit all their ads for approval and pay a yearly fee." [more faq] Note, that's all their ads if the product is to carry the ADA seal. ADA is doing work and not just raking in money. Sponsorships help pay for the administration of the logo program.

More examples: more on the issues from this PBS program
[scroll down to the section titled endorsements]

Meanwhile I am on the governing body of the ALA I don't know a thing about our deal with Walgreens, whether the "product" we are partnering with them on has been evaluated [I'd love to hear from RUSA], whether there are more deals down the line, and what the nature of our deal is. That concerns me. Whether or not we are actually endorsing Walgreens or whether Walgreens is a good, bad, or value-neutral company is a bit beside the case to me [maybe not as cut and dried as pushing super-sugared milk to children as in the Hershey's Milk partnership which I find very troubling] We are also responsible for how it looks, as well as the reality of the arrangement.

What's at issue is that I'll feel responsible for every senior citizen who sees one of those brochures in our library and says "I trust the people from the ALA, maybe I'll get my discount card at Walgreens" I agree it's not too plausible, but it's not impossible either. Saying people can "just toss out the brochures" is shirking responsibility for the fact that ALA spent money putting them there. I shouldn't have to do double collection development work on an item sent to me by ALA, I should, as a librarian, be able to trust information coming from librarians, shouldn't I?