By John Finnerty
The House Health Committee has approved legislation to expand Pennsylvania’s prescription drug tracking program to allow doctors to review a patient’s drug use history. Now only law enforcement officials have access to this private medical information.
The measure also adds several drugs such as steroids, valium and Xanax as well as common cold medicine Robitussin to highly addictive drugs such as cocaine, morphine and oxycodone.
Sponsors say the purpose of the bill is to prevent drug abuse, doctor shopping and prescription drug trafficking. The Pennsylvania Medical Society sees the legislation as helping doctors make sure they are giving medication to people who really need it.
“The bill we would like to see when it’s final would be used primarily as a tool for physicians to do the best job they can to avoid being scammed (into giving prescriptions to people faking ailments) and to help patients receive the care they need,” said Chuck Moran, a spokesman for the medical society.
Creating a database that is accessible to doctors across the state would be helpful even in cases where there is no attempt to fraudulently obtain drugs, Moran said. In many cases, he said, people turn up in the emergency room unable to describe what medications they are taking. The database would quickly make the information available, he added.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania objects to the legislation on the grounds it could violate patients’ privacy.
“The privacy of the child who breaks his arm on his bike or who takes attention deficit medication is being sacrificed because someone across town is abusing these substances,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the Pennsylvania ACLU.
Andy Hoover, the group’s legislative director, added that “in these days of mass data collection by the NSA (National Security Administration), it’s hard to believe that any government official would propose more monitoring of our daily lives.”
In 2009, a hacker compromised a similar prescription surveillance program in Virginia, exposing the personally identifying information of 8 million Virginians, ACLU officials said.
Pennsylvania currently pays $120,000 annually to an Ohio company to manage the prescription drug data base for the state Attorney General’s Office. The company receives monthly reports from pharmacies about prescriptions of Schedule II drugs or those most likely to be addictive, such as cocaine and morphine.
Joe Peters, a spokesman for Attorney General Kathleen Kane, said that the existing database has been effective in helping investigators crack prescription drug rings. In some cases, people fraudulently seek prescription medicine for their own use. But, she said, increasingly police are encountering cases where the drugs are being resold to addicts.
Earlier this year, the attorney general announced that investigators had nailed participants in two competing prescription drug trafficking organizations that were flooding the Poconos with oxycodone. Prosecutors allege that a doctor in New York was issuing prescriptions to ring members, writing out more than 500 drug orders in 100 different names. Prosecutors say that the ring distributed more than 70,000 pills with an estimated street value of $2.1 million.
According to agents, the demand for oxycodone in northeastern Pennsylvania was so high that many pharmacies ran out of the drug or refused to fill prescriptions.
Finnerty works in the Harrisburg Bureau for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. He can be reached by email at email@example.com or on Twitter @cnhipa.