Week in Review: Lawmakers tackle Rx database, set aside medical marijuana


By PA Independent Staff

State lawmakers passed a flurry of bills this week, in what were the final scheduled session days before the November election — that is, before the state House decided it’s going to work on Monday, too.

Among the action, lawmakers in both chambers passed legislation that would create an expanded prescription monitoring program, a tool that has been hailed as a step forward for public health and also derided as an invasion of privacy when it comes to personal medical records.

Other big-ticket items such as pension reform, liquor privatization and paycheck protection remained elusive legislative white whales, as did the legalization of some forms of medical marijuana.

Drug database on track to become law despite privacy concerns

State lawmakers that have been trying for years to beef up Pennsylvania’s prescription monitoring program to combat drug and opiate abuse finally saw their work come to fruition this week.

Both the House and Senate approved legislation that would create the Achieving Better Care By Monitoring All Prescriptions Program.

It would expand the scope of a current prescription monitoring program to sweep up far more drugs, and would give doctors and pharmacists access to the information. Law enforcement officials could also access the information, even without a search warrant.

LOOKING BACK: Pennsylvania lawmakers passed legislation that would expand the state’s prescription monitoring program.

“This bill is not the total solution to a drug problem in our commonwealth, but it’s a vital piece of the puzzle,” said state Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, the main sponsor of the legislation.

The American Civil Liberties of Union of Pennsylvania sees it more as an invasion of privacy that’s part of a failed War on Drugs. Andy Hoover, the organization’s legislative director, said it was “noteworthy” 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.”

That sentiment didn’t deter lawmakers, who sent the bill to Gov. Tom Corbett, who supports the legislation.

Medical marijuana legislation unlikely to pass this year amid House concerns

One thing that won’t be passed before the end of the year is the legalization of medical marijuana in Pennsylvania.

The state Senate passed the bill in late September, but House GOP leaders say they didn’t have enough time to vet the proposal and want to hold at least two committee hearings on the subject. Some conservatives in the House are worried about the bill’s creation of a new state agency, the State Board of Medical Cannabis Licensing, to oversee the distribution of the drug.

Even if the bill did make it through the House before the end of November, when the two-year legislative session ends, it wouldn’t get a warm welcome from Corbett. A former prosecutor, Corbett has been skeptical of medical marijuana and a spokesman says the governor wouldn’t sign the bill in its current form.

Corbett does support small scale clinical trials of medical marijuana for children suffering from seizures. His opponent in this fall’s election, Tom Wolf, has called for legalization of medical marijuana and said the state should study the possibility of recreational legalization.

Philadelphia teachers protest contract changes

Teachers and other union members poured on the streets in Philadelphia on Thursday to protest contract changes made by the School Reform Commission, a state-appointed body that runs Philadelphia schools.

The showdown between the union and the SRC goes back several years. With the district in financially dire straits, the two sides have been unable to agree to a new contract. The SRC has been seeking major concessions from the union as a cost-saving measure, even while closing schools, laying off thousands of employees and seeking additional state aid on an annual basis.

The SRC maintains that teachers will have to pay between $70 and $200 for health coverage each month.

Jerry Jordan, the head of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, disputes that figure. He told the commission Thursday night the average teacher would have to spend more than $600 per month on health insurance.

Before the changes made last week, teachers in Philadelphia didn’ contribute at all to their health benefits.

Drop, cover and hold on: Pennsylvanians participate in worldwide earthquake drill as quake concerns rise

On Thursday morning, a third of a million Pennsylvanians were signed up to do an earthquake drill, along with 20 million worldwide.

Whether spurred by increased concerns about fracking-related earthquakes or simply memories of quakes that have shaken the state, preparedness is on the rise in the Keystone State.

Cory Angell, spokesman for the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, said his office is mostly doing social media and other outreach. “I don’t know how many people are going to climb under their desks — but I’m going to,” he said.