By John Finnerty
The Pennsylvania Medical Society is threatening to pull its support for a proposed statewide prescription drug monitoring effort over an amendment that would automatically alert police every time a patient is ordered to take certain drugs.
The bill could violate federal patient privacy laws, said C. Richard Schott, a Delaware County cardiologist, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania first raised the alarm about patient privacy in the drug monitoring database. Andrew Hoover, legislative director of the ACLU in Pennsylvania, said the organization agrees with the medical society.
Pennsylvania has an existing database that provides the Attorney General’s office with information about prescriptions for extremely addictive drugs. The proposed expansion would allow doctors to access the database and add a number of other prescription drugs that are being increasingly abused. Proponents of the database say it’s needed to stem the tide of overdoses from prescription drug abuse by recreational users and addicts.
The Medical Society had been actively lobbying in favor of the database because it would make it easier for doctors to recognize “pill-shoppers,” people faking ailments to get drugs.
A new amendment would propose a computer-generated “automatic notification” provided to the Attorney General’s office, with sharing provisions to local district attorneys for irregular or illegal patterns of activity involving prescription drugs. This is not substantially different from the way the existing database works. But that database only includes extremely addictive drugs, such as cocaine and heroin and chemically-similar alternatives. The expanded program would add a host of drugs, including: steroids, anti-anxiety medication and some forms of cold medication.
The original expanded drug monitoring plan would have required a court order for police to access patient information, said Schott. That was weakened so police could get the information about an “active investigation.” Doctors were willing to accept that compromise, but the latest changes weaken the privacy protections even further.
Schott imagined the worst case scenario: An elderly patient in hospice receiving heavy doses of painkillers to cope with the end of life. He concedes it’s unlikely that police would intentionally want to bother a person who is receiving medication for legitimate need. But the weakened standards for police access create the danger that officers could unintentionally bother law-abiding patients.
Doctors also fear that patients will stop seeking medical care if they fear that police will receive notifications about what types of drugs they are being prescribed.
Schott said Pennsylvania needs drug monitoring, in part, because neighboring states have such monitoring programs.
“If you’re a burglar, you go to a gun-free zone, if you are drug-shopper, you go to where there is no drug monitoring,” Schott said.
But, if the patient-privacy concerns are not dealt with, the medical society will not support the legislation, he said.
Finnerty writes for CNHI’s Pennsylvania newspapers, including The Meadville Tribune, from Harrisburg.