TALLAHASSEE — A Republican legislator wrote to the St. Petersburg Times last week to tell the editorial board that it was wrong.
The state doesn't need a prescription drug database, as an editorial recommended, said freshman state Rep. Larry Ahern of Seminole.
Florida already has one.
"The Florida House has it right, and the Times gets it wrong," Ahern wrote in a letter to the editor published Friday. "Pharmacies already have a database in place, and the transaction is recorded on the spot. They will question the person trying to fill another prescription so quickly, and not fill it or call the doctor.
"We don't need a separate database with one already in place."
Is the database that's caused such a fight in the Legislature overkill?
About the database
Republicans in Tallahassee are split on whether to implement a new database that would track the sale of some prescription drugs in order to better identify and prevent doctor shopping and prescription drug abuse.
More than 30 other states already have some type of database. Florida approved its version in 2009, but has been stalled over a contract dispute over what private vendor would manage the system. That has given some Republicans a chance to second-guess the program.
A bill moving through the House at the behest of Speaker Dean Cannon would eliminate the database and instead require tracking drug wholesalers to identify unusually large distributions of narcotics. It also prohibits doctors from dispensing those medications, leaving that to pharmacists.
Gov. Rick Scott, meanwhile, has said he worries the database could be an invasion of privacy.
Is Ahern right?
We turned to experts on the matter — pharmacists — to find out whether Ahern is right that Florida already has a database.
Ron Haines, a licensed pharmacist since 1961 who works at an independent pharmacy in Tarpon Springs, told us there is no database like the one Ahern is suggesting.
"I can't call the pharmacy across the street to ask if they filled a prescription for Mike Smith. They can't tell me."
Records are kept by pharmacies, of course, but those records aren't shared, Haines said.
Every pharmacy keeps a record of what it prescribes to patients, Haines said, and pharmacy chains such as Walgreens, CVS and Publix link into company databases. So a Publix pharmacist might know how many times a customer has been to a Publix pharmacy, and for what. But the Walgreens database doesn't synch into the CVS database, or vice versa.
Insurance companies also keep databases on their patients to track what insurance companies are being ask to help pay for.
But none of those databases were created with the idea of trying to find people — doctors or patients — who are abusing the system, Haines said.
"The databases we use store prescription records in the pharmacy. That's as far as it goes," he said. "There is nothing aimed at targeting bad doctors and doctor shopping. That's what we're after."
Michael Jackson, CEO of the Florida Pharmacy Association, told us the same thing.
"It is true that many of the major chain pharmacies have prescription databases that are shared under their corporate umbrella pharmacies, however they are not interconnected with other pharmacies," Jackson said. "For example I may be a pharmacist working at chain 'A' and a patient brings in their prescription to me. I cannot determine if that patient had a prescription filled at my competitor chain 'B' located across the street that same day."
Ahern, in an interview, more or less conceded the point. He said what he was trying to suggest is that the state should explore ways to have the big pharmacies connect the already in-place databases together in a way that would allow law enforcement and pharmacists to look for trouble spots. He said using infrastructure already in place is better than creating a new system from scratch.
"That would, in essence, solve much of the problems," he said.
Ahern also pointed out flaws in the statewide monitoring program — namely that health care practitioners would not be required to access the database before prescribing anyone medicine. And that pharmacists have 15 days to enter drug purchases into the system. "Where does that solve the problem?" Ahern asked.
Ahern, for the record, is worried about privacy concerns in the database, and says he supports efforts to quell doctor-shopping. But he just doesn't think the statewide database is an effective tool in that fight.
He claimed in his letter to the editor that a database already is in place. There are many private-sector databases that collect information on prescription drug purchases, but those databases are not interconnected and were not created with the idea of reducing prescription drug abuse statewide. These individual store or company databases don't address the problem. So we rate this claim False.