Legislature Takes Up Prescription Monitoring Program

A bill to track prescriptions of controlled substances faces heated opposition from the ACLU as it has in past sessions

June 17, 2009 -- People addicted to pain medications know the ropes. They go from one doctor to the next and end up with multiple prescriptions for such painkillers as Oxycodone or Vicodon.

A bipartisan group of legislators, led by Senator Bill Morrisette (D-Eugene), is trying to put a stop to such practices, but has run into fierce opposition from the American Civil Liberties Union. Senators Alan Bates (D-Ashland) and Jeff Kruse (R-Roseburg) are the co-sponsors.

Senate Bill 355 would create a database overseen by the state’s public health division run by Dr. Mel Kohn. Similar legislation was defeated in the past two legislative sessions.
Don Bishoff, legislative aide to Morrisette, is guardedly optimistic this time around that the bill would get a vote on the Senate floor. The bill would allow prescribers and pharmacists to check the medical records and, determine, in advance, if people were misusing drugs.
“Now people are addicted to painkillers, and are selling drugs on the black market,” he said. A $300,000 federal grant would jump start the database, with prescribers and pharmacists paying a $25 annual fee.
Deaths from overdose of legally prescribed drugs nearly doubled from 1999 to 2004, and have surpassed deaths from cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs, according to Dr. Sharon Meieran, an emergency room physician in southwest Portland whose commentary appeared in The Oregonian on March 27.
“The rate of overdose and death has alarmingly increased fivefold in five years in teenagers,” she wrote. “Unfortunately we all too often see patients who have overdosed or died from ingesting these medications. A database to quickly monitor narcotic prescriptions would go a long way to help us differentiate between patients with legitimate needs and those who are physician shopping to obtain narcotic or sedative medications for illicit use.”
The latest statistics, from 2008, show that 131 Oregonians died from overdosing on methadone and 39 from Oxycodone.
However lawmakers face a tough challenge from the ACLU, which is working nonstop to defeat this bill. After the ACLU sent an email alert recently, over 500 consumers voiced their disapproval to Senate President Peter Courtney.
“This database would open up significant exposure to Oregonians who are law-abiding citizens and put them at risk,” said Andrea Meyer, its lobbyist. For example, there are no protections for invasion of privacy. Any physician or pharmacists could get access to a patient’s health record, and there aren’t any safeguards when people leave their jobs. Although 28 other states have set up such databases, none of these programs have been evaluated to determine their effectiveness in curbing drug abuse,    
Besides painkillers, the database also would include anxiety medications such as Xanax, sleep medications such as Ambien and Ritalin, which is prescribed to children.
“If this information got into the wrong hands, it could be a gold mine” because the name of the patient, their prescription and home address could be traced, Meyer added. “We have significant concerns about snooping and misuse.”
On April 30, thieves hacked into a similar database in the state of Virginia and got access to the records of 8 million people and 35 million prescription documents.
“This legislation poses a significant risk to consumers,” Meyer said. “It could be chilling and damaging. We’re fundamentally opposed.”
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