Florida's drug database only needs stronger security, not dismantling

July 10, 2013 

Florida's prescription drug database requires tighter security to prevent another leak of patients' personal information, but it should remain operational.

The life-saving monitoring system has proven successful in reducing "doctor shopping" by drug abusers and dealers, thereby decreasing the number of addictive pain killers and other controlled substances out on the streets. Deaths from oxycodone alone have dropped 17 percent in Florida, and the number of people shopping for doctors has plunged almost 58 percent.

Calls for abolishing this weapon in the war on drug abuse should not be heeded.

Database security was breached when lawyers representing defendants in a Volusia County drug sting and the prosecutors acquired prescription drug information on 3,300 patients while working on six criminal cases.

Those cases came about after an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration learned several doctors had fallen prey to fraud by phony patients using false identities. The agent accessed the drug database and received thousands of names -- including a number who were not under investigation.

Prosecutors and defense attorneys received the information, too. Though the data was marked confidential, one defense attorney recognized the name of another lawyer and informed him. That lawyer filed a lawsuit seeking a determination about whether the database program is unconstitutional and violates protections against searches and seizures.

But his privacy rights were violated as a result of someone breaking the confidentiality warning -- the unethical actions of one individual. The system should not be faulted as critics contend.

The state Department of Health, which oversees the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, is looking into stricter security measures to eliminate the unauthorized use of information. A DOH workshop on Monday will be followed by another in August.

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi called heightened security a "common sense step to prevent criminal defense attorneys from compromising the confidentiality of Floridians' prescription records. The PDMP will help us save lives, and it's important that Floridians understand that the law enforcement community respects the laws that protect their privacy."

The state must ensure that others allowed to access this database agree to respect that privacy, too, with strong penalties to secure compliance.

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