Prescription drug monitoring program on road to becoming PA law

By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

HARRISBURG, Pa. — The desire for public health protections trumped privacy concerns Thursday, as the state Senate sent legislation that would establish a broad prescription monitoring program to Gov. Tom Corbett’s desk.

Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved the legislation despite continued concerns levied by the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which contends the program will strip citizens of their privacy rights when it comes to sensitive medical information.

State Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, served as the prime sponsor of the legislation that establishes the Achieving Better Care by Monitoring All Prescriptions program, and has painted it as a patient care initiative rather than a punitive measure.

NEW TOOL IN FIGHT AGAINST ABUSE: State Sen. Pat Vance said her legislation gives Pennsylvania a new tool to combat doctor shopping. Others worry that comes at the expense of civil liberties.

Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday, Vance said the program could prevent people from doctor shopping to obtain prescription drugs from several physicians at a time. It could also keep people from walking a path toward eventual heroin abuse, a problem that has spread across the state.

“This bill is not the total solution to a drug problem in our commonwealth, but it’s a vital piece of the puzzle,” Vance said.

Most lawmakers agreed with that sentiment. The Senate approved Vance’s bill in a 46-2 vote two days after the House approved it by a 194-2 margin.

“This is going to save a lot of lives in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said state Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga.

The legislation now has a clear road to become law. Jay Pagni, a spokesman for Corbett, said the governor would sign the bill, which will bring Pennsylvania’s prescription monitoring program closer in line with other states.

Pennsylvania already tracks Schedule II drugs, which are considered to have a high potential for abuse. That includes controlled substances such as Oxycontin, Adderall and Ritalin. The prescription monitoring program is housed in the Attorney General’s Office, and only law enforcement officials have access.

Vance’s legislation moves the program under the Department of Health and give prescribers and dispensers access. It would also expand the program’s reach to track Schedule II through Schedule V drugs, which would include Vicodin, Xanax and Robitussin with codeine, among many others.

The legislation also gives doctors and pharmacists access to an expanded prescription monitoring program.

While lawmakers celebrated the legislation’s passage, the ACLU continued to decry the program as another part of a failed War on Drugs. Andy Hoover, the organization’s legislative director, said it was “noteworthy” that Vance acknowledged it wouldn’t be an end-all solution.

“This has been put out there as a panacea to drug abuse. It’s been put out there as so important that you’d almost think it’s going to solve all the world’s problems,” Hoover said. “All this will do is allow doctors and pharmacists and law enforcement to have more of an eye on what prescriptions are going to people. That does not solve the issue of abuse.”

The ACLU’s concern has largely centered around the fact law enforcement officials could peer into the database without a search warrant. Instead of that standard, law enforcement would have to have reasonable suspicion of criminal activity related to an active investigation to access the program. The bill, though, wouldn’t allow law enforcement to use information from the database at trial.

Despite the concerns from the ACLU, the legislation had broad support from groups such as the Pennsylvania Medical Society, the Pennsylvania Pharmacists Association and the Pennsylvania District Attorneys Association.

Concerned by physicians’ reports that doctor shopping was running rampant and a realization that scammers were getting better at their trade, the Pennsylvania Medical Society heralded Vance’s legislation, even while President Dr. Bruce MacLeod acknowledged the bill could be improved.

“We will be working with our physician leadership and members to work on those issues, including making sure that access to patient information is protected beyond a doubt,” he said in a statement. “But passage of this bill is a historic step to help improve the health of all Pennsylvanians through rapid detection of pill shoppers across the state.”

Andrew Staub is a reporter for PA Independent and can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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