Drug overdose deaths spur monitoring legislation
HARRISBURG - Concerns about a spate of drug overdose deaths in Pennsylvania have put the spotlight on legislation to create a state database to monitor illegal use of prescription drugs.
The issue surfaced last month during state Attorney General Kathleen G. Kane's budget hearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Passage of monitoring legislation is key to combatting illegal drug use, said Kane. Prescription drugs abuse is often a gateway to heroin use, she said.
"We have a heroin problem," added Kane. "We also have a prescription pill problem."
House lawmakers approved a prescription drug monitoring bill last October sponsored by Rep. Matt Baker, R-68, Wellsboro, chairman of the House Health Committee.
The Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee plans to consider the issue March 19. Baker's bill is before that panel, as well as a bill sponsored by panel chairwoman Sen. Pat Vance, R-31, Camp Hill.
The goal is to create a database under the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs with records listing the names of patients receiving prescriptions of controlled substances, the prescribing doctor, pharmacist or other dispenser, the drug dosage and source of payment.
This information would be considered confidential. The House-approved bill grants access to the database to doctors, pharmacists, certain state agencies involved in oversight or licensing investigations and coroners investigating a cause of death.
The database will give doctors and pharmacists the information they need to flag unusual or unacceptable activity, said Baker. For example, if someone received prescriptions from two different doctors for a narcotic and goes to two different pharmacies to get the prescriptions filled, that information will show up on the database, he said.
One of the purposes of the database would be to identify and help individuals suffering with an addiction, he said.
"We are one of only 12 states that does not have a comprehensive prescription drug monitoring program," added Baker. "We are hearing about more and more overdose deaths while we are waiting to get this legislation passed."
There are some outstanding issues that need to be ironed out, such as the extent of law enforcement access to the database through the use of search warrants, said Baker.
Vance said she is trying to draft a provision on this issue that would be acceptable to the coalition of groups supporting the bill.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania is a vocal critical of the bill, saying it goes too far in sacrificing privacy rights.
A major flaw is that the bill allows law enforcement to access the records without court oversight, said Andy Hoover, ACLU legislative director.
He said a provision for records to be kept in the database for six years is too long.
"That length of time creates a situation where private personal information is vulnerable to a security breach," said Hoover, adding that a two-year limit would be more appropriate.
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