Should a warrant be required to access prescription drug database?by Dara Kam | July 8th, 2013
A rule-making workshop about the state’s prescription drug database elicited comments from just one member of the public, a lawyer representing the ACLU who offered suggestions about how to tighten security for the program.
State health officials ordered the workshop, scheduled to last five hours, in response to the leaking of 3,300 patients’ prescription drug information in a Volusia County drug sting to lawyers representing defendants in the case.
The security breach prompted Michael Lambert, a Daytona Beach lawyer whose prescription drug history was among thousands of others’ handed out by a prosecutor and who is among the accused, to challenge the constitutionality of the database in court. Lambert says the database is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy and violates protections against searches and seizures by the government.
Accessing the database should require a search warrant, ACLU lobbyist Pamela Burch Fort told the panel. But that’s not something the department can do with a rule. Instead, it would require the Legislature to change the laws regarding the program, called the Electronic-Florida Online Reporting of Controlled Substances Evaluation Program, or E-FORSCE.
But Burch Fort also suggested that the state notify individuals like Lambert whose names have been released to third parties but who are not under investigation.
The state should also limit law enforcement agents’ ability to go on “fishing expeditions” when they query the database. Under current guidelines for the program, investigators can use a “wildcard search using partial text,” allowing them to enter partial names or conduct a search for a name that sounds like the subject’s name.
And the department should redact the names of anyone whose drug history shows up in a search but who is not part of an active investigation, the ACLU, which opposes the database, suggested. The ACLU of Florida has asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the release of the names.
Department of Health officials did not take questions from reporters following the meeting, which lasted about half an hour, and instead directed reporters to submit questions in writing.
But Lorrie Abramowitz, an investigator with the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, said a warrant should not be required to access the database because they aren’t needed to access pharmacists’ or doctors’ prescription drug records.
Abramowitz has investigated drug crimes for nearly two decades, and, like other law enforcement officials including Attorney General Pam Bondi, she said the database has dramatically reduced the number of “doctor shoppers.”
“It absolutely has been a huge asset,” Abramowitz said. “It’s working.”
Officials at the Florida Department of Health, which oversees the program, announced in June they were exploring stricter security measures to help ensure patients’ privacy. The department will have another workshop in August.