1. Opinion

Editorial: Why is the Florida Senate helping drug companies in opioid lawsuit?

Don't be fooled: The "privacy" concern that state senators are using to hinder Florida's lawsuit over the opioid epidemic benefits only big corporations that need to be held accountable for the public health crisis. In the final days of the legislative session, the Senate should follow the House's lead and give Attorney General Ashley Moody a legitimate tool to pursue the state's claim in a timely manner. Any legitimate privacy issues can be addressed without undermining or delaying the state's pursuit of justice.

Moody wants access to the state's prescription drug database to bolster Florida's lawsuit against the nation's largest drug makers, distributors and pharmacies, which the state reasonably accuses of recklessly supplying Floridians with drugs. On Monday, the House unanimously passed legislation, HB 1253, granting Moody access to the Florida Department of Health's data. But the Senate has refused to take up the issue, which would hand a big win to the pharmacy giants and a big loss for public health and safety.

The database tracks all monitored drugs, from oxycodone to sleeping pills. But Moody can't use it for the state's civil lawsuit, which is filed in Pasco County. By law, the use of the database is restricted to criminal cases and administrative actions against physicians. Moody needs the database to show specific examples that Walgreens, along with its rival CVS, "raced to sell as many opioids as possible" while failing to stop suspicious shipments of drugs, as the lawsuit alleges.

But the Senate bill stalled in the committee of Sen. Lizbeth Benacquisto, a Fort Myers Republican, who said she won't hear the measure because of concerns it could invade the privacy of patients. Other opponents contend that allowing access would be a misuse of personal information and an invitation to hacking. These are the same hollow arguments that lawmakers voiced for years before the drug database was finally created in 2009. "They use the word 'privacy,' which gets people's attention," said former Sen. Mike Fasano, who was instrumental in getting the database created and is now the Pasco County tax collector. "What this comes down to is protecting the corporations that need to be held accountable for helping to create this epidemic."

If Moody's lawyers got access to the data, they would not see patients' names. There would be a unique identifying number for each patient, along with the patient's year of birth and their city, county, and zip code. Dates of birth and sex would also be removed, and the attorney general could use the information only as evidence in a civil, criminal or administrative suit against a pharmacy or dispenser. Experts have assured the attorney general that the risk of re-identification is nearly impossible, calling the concerns "conspiracy theories" with "no basis in reality."

Moody still could get the information from the companies through the lawsuit's discovery process. But that would be expensive and the companies could drag out the process for years. There is no justifiable reason for denying the state a narrow, practical path for presenting its case.

The human and public health costs of the opioid epidemic are staggering; between 1999 and 2016, more than 200,000 people nationwide have died from overdoses related to prescription opioids, including thousands of Floridians. Opioids killed nearly 6,000 people in the state in 2016 alone. It's beyond time to hold those responsible accountable, and the Senate should allow the state to gather all of the facts for its lawsuit in the most effective manner.