ACLU calls for patient privacy after PA pill-tracking database vote
HARRISBURG — Fast-moving legislative action to track controlled substance prescriptions in the name of countering addiction has the American Civil Liberties Union concerned about the privacy of Pennsylvania’s patients.
The ACLU of Pennsylvania said “mere hours after introduction,” the House Human Services Committee voted out a bill that could jeopardize the security of medical data.
The legislation “will create a confidential electronic database of controlled substance prescriptions in Pennsylvania,” according to a memo from the bill’s sponsor, House Health Chairman Matt Baker, R-Tioga, that was circulated to other lawmakers.
But the ACLU said the bill is “woefully inadequate” in protecting privacy. Law enforcement doesn’t need a court order to get information from the database, which can be stored for up to six years. Law enforcement could request the state keep the information on file longer.
“While there are legitimate public health concerns about prescription drug abuse, this bill goes too far in sacrificing the privacy rights of millions of Pennsylvanians,” said Reggie Shuford, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a media release. “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.”
The proposal creates the Pharmaceutical Accountability Monitoring System to track Schedule II, III, IV or V drugs under the federal Controlled Substance Act. That includes drugs like hydrocodone combinations (including Vicodin), oxycodone, morphine, lorazepam (like anxiety medication Ativan) and zolpidem (Ambien), among many others.
According to the legislation, law enforcement could request information relating to Schedule II drugs, which include opiates like Oxycontin and Percocet, and amphetamines like Adderall. Law enforcement could also request any information from PAMS relating to someone who’s the subject of drug offense investigation. Doctors, pharmacists, dentists and others licensed to dispense medication would be authorized to query the database for patient or prescription information, as well.
The speedy movement of House Bill 1694 — which will now be on the calendar for consideration by the full House of Representatives — may be due in part to Gov. Corbett’s health care reform plans. In his announcement of Healthy Pennsylvania on Sept. 16, Corbett outlined plans to “enhance the prescription drug monitoring program.”
Other states have created similar databases. They’re used to help doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement crack down on prescription drug abuse by examining whether a patient may be filling multiple prescriptions with multiple doctors — and they can also help doctors coordinate their patient care among themselves and give addiction treatment.
Prescription pill addiction proves to be more deadly than some illegal drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, prescription drug overdoses led to four times as many deaths as heroin overdoses in 2007, and twice as many as cocaine.
The ACLU warns mass data collection for a database like the one proposed doesn’t do enough to protect patients, pointing out the amount of digitized records can lead to unwarranted exposure. The group cited a survey from privacy researchers at the Ponemon Institute that found medical identity fraud increased by 20 percent over the last year.
Contact Melissa Daniels at email@example.com
The Pennsylvania Independent is a public interest journalism project dedicated to promoting open, transparent, and accountable state government by reporting on the activities of agencies, bureaucracies, and politicians in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. It is funded by the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a libertarian nonprofit organization.