Two weeks ago, I told you about Portland, Oregon-based ProgressiveRx.com, an online pharmacy that has a founder who was going to keep me informed about Congressional health care reform efforts, especially when it comes to technology-driven solutions that could impact rising medical costs.
But last week, Progressive received the equivalent of a troubling diagnosis from Google, and now its financial health is in jeopardy.
Progressive's founder, Hayden Hamilton, told me he received a note from Google AdWords - the advertising arm of the search giant - informing him that Google would no longer be using PharmacyChecker to validate online pharmacies. PharmacyChecker is the third-party outfit that investigates issues like drug safety, legal sources, customer service, etc., for companies that sell medications online. It exists because of concerns that arose six years ago from Congress and the pharmaceutical industry about counterfeit medications being sold online by rogue pharmacies. Lawmakers and the industry asked Google and other search engines to do something about that, and PharmacyChecker was the result.
PharmacyChecker gives ProgressiveRx its highest ratings. But beginning March 1st, Google will use a validation program affiliated with the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy. "Its impossible to get VIPPS (the NABP's program) certification. The pharmaceutical industry set it up that way," Hamilton told me. "In the entire world there are only 19 VIPPS-certified pharmacies. It was just setup so the big pharma could say, 'make sure your internet pharmacy is VIPPS-certified,' and since none of them are, they can raise doubts about all of them."
Hamilton says to get on the VIPPS program, he would have to have a physical presence in all 50 states, since pharmacy licenses in states where he does business are required for certification. Google sends about 70 percent of Progressive's traffic, so he won't be able to rely on the search giant's help with business anymore.
ProgressiveRX gets most of its drugs from Canada and India. In Bangalore, India, Hamilton does business with what he says are FDA-approved manufacturers. In fact, he says most of the manufacturers he buys his drugs from also provide the big pharmaceutical companies with the generic versions of their drugs. "The most ridiculous thing about this is that big pharma - the Glaxos and Mercks and whatnot - they're buying their generics from these Indian pharmaceutical manufacturers. You could ask them the same question: they're coming from India, how can you be sure they're not counterfeit?"
Hamilton believes the pharmaceutical lobby pressured Google into the change because the big companies are threatened by online pharmacies' lower prices, which appeal to those who have less money to spend on drugs or health insurance plans that don't cover rising drug costs.
I asked Google if it was pressured by the pharma lobby to change to the VIPPS program, and if it had any concerns with PharmacyChecker. They didn't answer the questions, but a spokeswoman did send a copy of a Google AdWords blog posting explaining the new policy.
I spoke with Jennifer Wall, spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. She told me that her group had not been in touch with Google. She also sent a statement from a group executive praising Google for "playing a positive role in helping protect patient health and safety." Wall reiterated that PhRMA's goals are to reduce the incidences of counterfeit drugs and fradulent online pharmacies.
Hamilton says in six years of business, filing more than 90,000 orders, he's not received one complaint about counterfeit medications or anyone getting sick because of what they bought on ProgressiveRx.com. He now hopes that Yahoo! and Bing continue to use PharmacyChecker for validation of companies like his.
Stay tuned: I'll bring you health updates on ProgressiveRx.com as I get them.
Windows dials up new phone software
Microsoft has so far stolen the show at this week's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the top trade show for all makers of smartphones. The company's reinvented, reimagined Windows Mobile software - heretofore known as Windows Phone Seven Series (?) - has received good early reviews, if only for the fact that it comes nowhere near to resembling the old Windows Mobile user interface.
After nearly four years of denying that Microsoft would put out a Zune phone (based on its version of a digital music player), the company has now basically made Zune Phone software. And that's a good thing, says Directions on Microsoft analyst Rob Helm.
Helm told me that for once, Microsoft has made smartphone software with average consumers, and not businesses or power users, in mind first. The rise of smartphones have made it clear that consumers bring technologies to work and ask their companies to adapt to them, instead of using phones that are designed with work as a priority.
Windows Phone 7 integrates not only Zune's user interface, but can also get you onto Xbox Live. Those can both be key differentiators, Helm said. But the biggest question remains: can Microsoft deliver an applications store worthy of the competition? We'll find out in March when the company hosts its annual developers conference.
HTC's Barcelona news
Another local company was also busy at MWC this week. HTC, which has North American headquarters in Bellevue, unveiled three new phones, and if this company has learned anything, it's how to name a phone. The HTC Legend, HTC Desire, and HTC HD Mini are marketing campaign-ready. I can just imagine the negotiations going on with U2 for the right to use its song "Desire" in forthcoming commercials.
The Legend and Desire are Android phones that will first be sold in Europe and Asia, but I'd be surprised if they don't eventually land stateside. The HTC HD Mini is a Windows Phone-based device, and all will use the HTC Sense user-interface, which plays up customization with a series of five to six sliding screens; email and social media updates are pushed front and center on the screens.
HTC last month announced a new phone for U.S. customers, the HTC HD2 from T-Mobile, which will be available in the spring. But the company did use the Barcelona show to take the wraps off of some entertainment features destined for the HD2: Blockbuster OnDemand (order a movie on one device, watch it on another), Barnes and Noble's e-reader software MobiTV live television viewing capabilities and two "Transformer" movies pre-loaded on the phone's memory card.