Editorial: Drug database needs privacy protections

Published January 23 2014
Updated January 23 2014

Florida's prescription drug database is a valuable weapon in curbing the public damage from drug-related deaths, narcotics tourism and criminal trafficking. But it should not be used by law enforcement as a stocked pond for fishing expeditions. The Legislature needs to strengthen privacy protections without taking this tool away from law enforcement. And Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has been so concerned about citizens' privacy with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, should see the value in that.

The database program, created in the wake of an epidemic of prescription drug-related deaths, requires pharmacies and physicians who dispense certain drugs to report that information — including personal and business data about the patient, doctor and pharmacy — to the state. In operation since 2011, the database has helped authorities crack down on pill mills, doctor-shopping and trafficking, and since it has come into being, deaths caused by oxycodone and other harmful drugs have dropped, as has the practice of doctor-shopping.

But with this success Floridians unknowingly lost some personal privacy, as the original state law left a virtual open door for law enforcement. Now state Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, chairman of the Senate Health Policy Committee, has proposed a bill (SPB 7016) to require a court subpoena before law enforcement may obtain database records.

Bondi and state prosecutors oppose the change, saying it would hamstring authorities, clog up the courts and remove a valuable tool from law enforcement. None of that's the case. Police and prosecutors have easy access to the courts to seek a subpoena. Their concern should be about establishing a legal basis for access — not convenience. Issuing these orders is routine for the courts; the only thing it may hamper is indiscriminate snooping. And nothing about this bill removes a tool for law enforcement. They still have access to the database. And the state could still track the database for suspicious patterns and alert police, who could use the tip as the basis for obtaining a subpoena.

As it currently stands, law enforcement merely needs to claim that access to the records "could" lead to charges for the Florida Department of Health to provide access to the database. On that score, nearly 1,000 police and investigators across the state are authorized to seek the records, and in three years of operation, the department has granted 34,733 requests — more than 98 percent of all requests by police to a database that holds nearly 90 million records. And agencies can keep this information on file for two years, even if an agency's investigation is no longer active.

This is an egregious invasion of privacy that makes a suspect out of every Florida patient. It is also unnecessary and over the long run likely will dampen public support for keeping this valuable database. Eighteen of the 49 states with drug monitoring programs require police and prosecutors to obtain a court order to access the records. Bondi should be working with Bean and lawmakers to bring some sensible balance to the registry.