Prescription Drug Database Could Get Tougher Restrictions
After Florida lawmakers failed to address the issue this spring, health officials are advancing an effort to tighten security on the state's prescription-drug database.
The Department of Health is floating a new rule that would lay out terms and conditions for use by law enforcement and investigative agencies after critics were unable to convince the Legislature to require court orders to access the database.
The push for enhanced restrictions on the database came after the names and detailed prescription-drug histories of more than 3,000 people were released to defense attorneys after a multi-agency drug sting last year.
The draft rule now being considered would require law enforcement agencies and investigators to undergo training before being able to access the database, bar officials who have access to the database from making queries on behalf of someone else and force those who gain access to the records to document when they give the data to criminal justice agencies, including prosecutors.
The proposal also outlines a process for disqualifying people who improperly handle prescription-drug information kept in the database. Health department spokesman Nathan Dunn said the agency expects to publish a notice of the proposed rule within 30 days.
The agency has grappled with the new rule for a year. Health officials held two rule-development workshops regarding the prescription drug database last summer, but that effort stalled after some lawmakers, irate over what they considered a data breach, tried to require court orders or search warrants to access the records. That effort went nowhere during the legislative session that ended in May.
In May 2013, State Attorney R.J. Larizza released the records of more than 3,300 individuals to five of six attorneys for defendants accused of prescription drug fraud in Volusia County. Michael H. Lambert, a Daytona Beach lawyer whose name and prescription history was on the list but who was not being investigated, sued Larizza and challenged the constitutionality of the law. A judge dismissed the case earlier this year.
In the wake of the release of the prescription-drug records and subsequent court challenges, state attorneys developed a protocol dealing with the discovery process in which they will only release information from the database that is not directly related to criminal cases if a judge orders them to do so.
But some critics, including Republican state Sens. Jeff Brandes of St. Petersburg and Aaron Bean of Fernandina Beach, felt that the prosecutors' self-imposed handling of the prescription-drug records still left patients vulnerable.
The latest draft rule appears to go farther than what health officials had previously considered by requiring investigating agencies to keep track of the release of the prescription-drug records to prosecutors or other criminal-justice agencies.
Lawmakers created the drug database in 2009, but it did not get up-and-running for two more years. Pushed by Attorney General Pam Bondi and others as a critical tool to combat "doctor shopping" and prescription-drug abuse, supporters have had trouble financing the database after lawmakers banned state money or contributions from drug manufacturers to pay for it.
Last year, the Legislature allocated $500,000 --- about the amount it costs to run the database for a year --- toward the database. Last month, Bondi announced she was giving nearly $2 million from a previous settlement with Caremark to the Department of Health to keep the database operational for the next four years.
State law requires pharmacists and other dispensers to enter all prescriptions for controlled substances, such as oxycodone, into the database but does not require physicians to consult the database before prescribing drugs for patients. Health officials credit the database, which now contains more than 87 million prescriptions, for a 51 percent reduction in the number of individuals who receive prescriptions from five or more physicians and five or more pharmacies in a 90-day period. Officials also say the database played a significant role in a nearly 41 percent drop in the number of deaths caused by oxycodone in 2012.