TALLAHASSEE — State health regulators, upset over leaks of confidential patient information, Tuesday addressed proposed fixes to Florida’s prescription drug database.
Officials in the Department of Health held a workshop on rules for tighteing and tracking access to its information to ensure patient privacy.
That included restricting the sharing of information to only l“key personnel” in law enforcement, a term that wasn’t defined. It also would track who received information and when.
Among a handful of speakers, Quincy Police Chief Walt McNeil argued to maintain law enforcement’s use of the database to investigate crimes even though critics have said increased access has led to wrongful disclosures.
“I think you’ll find, for the most part, agencies guard confidential information confidentially,” said McNeil, a former Tallahassee police chief who has also headed the state’s departments of juvenile justice and corrections.
“That information is not leaking out,” he added. “What most agencies do is treat this information sacrosanctly.”
Earlier this year, private information from thousands of patients – including their addresses, birthdays and medication dosages – leaked from the system as part of a Volusia County criminal probe. Many of the patients weren’t linked to the investigation but their information ended up in the hands of defense lawyers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida cried foul, and the Department of Health said it would look at increasing safety features.
But Pamela Burch Fort, ACLU spokeswoman, called the changes “minor (and) inconsequential” and already reflect existing law.
State law requires health care practitioners to report to the database – formally known as the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program – within seven days of prescribing or providing a controlled substance.
Florida has become a hub of prescription drug abuse. Drug abusers and dealers, many of whom travel from out of state, frequent so-called pain-management clinics that dole out prescription painkillers for a price. Business was so good they got the name “pill mills.”
Before the database, law enforcement officials said 85 percent of all oxycodone sold in the U.S. came from Florida. Since the database went online, Florida deaths from oxycodone have gone down 17 percent.
The idea behind the database was for doctors and pharmacists to quickly spot bogus patients who visit too many doctors and get drugs.
The database was created in 2009 but its operation languished for years amid political and legal bickering. White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, a former Florida police chief, traveled to Tallahassee in 2011 to speak in favor of the database.
The program was finally solidified by state lawmakers that year as part of a bill that required most clinics to register with the state and created penalties for doctors who wrongly prescribe painkillers.
That bill was signed by Gov. Rick Scott, even though he had initially opposed the database because of privacy concerns. Scott’s concern proved prescient when the leaks were revealed.
An effort to modify the program failed this past legislative session. A bill by former state Rep. Mike Fasano would have required doctors and pharmacists to check the now-voluntary system. Doctors’ groups said that would put too much of a burden on busy physicians.
Fasano also sought to change the reporting deadline to two days, and wanted pharmaceutical companies to help fund the program, which had gotten no state money and relies on grants and contributions. Lawmakers recently decided to fund the program for one year at $500,000.
Health Department lawyers will continue rewriting the new rules then publish them in legal bulletins for further review and comment.