Database would monitor drug use
By ANITA KUMAR, Times Staff Writer
TALLAHASSEE -- Responding to the escalating problem of prescription drug abuse, the state wants to include hundreds of thousands of Floridians in a massive database designed to track drug use.
The bill originally was intended to crack down on the abuse of the painkiller OxyContin but has expanded to include more than 100 commonly prescribed medicines known to have a high potential for abuse, such as Ritalin, codeine and morphine.
The database would monitor every transaction among patients, doctors and pharmacies. Even someone picking up a prescription for someone else, such as a spouse, would have to show identification so they could be added to the list.
Some state lawmakers and privacy rights groups worry that the proposal interferes with the rights of innocent people.
"It has a lot of potential danger," said Larry Spalding, a lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. "It's a law that on its face has good intentions, but the cure is far worse than the disease."
The plan, still subject to approval by the Legislature and the governor, would cost more than $7-million over the next three years to create the large database.
The database would be closed to the public but accessible to doctors, Department of Health employees and law enforcement agencies. It would allow them to question patients who tried to get a prescription at multiple drugstores or a doctor who prescribed OxyContin repeatedly to the same person.
"The database is the key," said Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, a sponsor of the bill. "It's the key to make sure some people aren't abusing legal drugs. . . . If it will save lives in the state, then it's worth it."
Sen. Locke Burt, R-Ormond Beach, another sponsor, estimates 1-million Floridians get prescriptions drugs covered under the legislation. James McDonough, director of the governor's office of drug control, said at least hundreds of thousands of people will be affected.
"The intent of the bill is to give a warning," McDonough said. "It will enable a signal to be sent."
But Sen. Skip Campbell, D-Tamarac, warned of a "Big Brother syndrome" and worried about the potential abuse by those who would have access to such personal information.
Seventeen other states, including California, use similar tracking systems and no one has sued over privacy, McDonough said. But some warn it could happen here.
"Are we collecting more information than necessary?" asked Rep. Fred Brummer, R-Apopka. "Should the government be the one collecting this?"
Gov. Jeb Bush, whose daughter is being treated for a prescription drug addiction not covered by the legislation, expanded the agenda for the two-week legislative session to include the drug database bill.
The bill is scheduled to be heard by the full Senate and House as early as today.
It includes myriad ways to cut down on drug abuse, including requiring doctors and nurses to attend a one-hour education course every two years and limiting the dispensing of certain drugs to a 30-day supply.
A handful of House members tried to amend the bill twice on Wednesday to exclude children under 18 who take Ritalin, generally prescribed for attention deficit or hyperactivity disorders.
"The impact of this bill is very, very far-reaching," said Rep. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormond Beach. "It is wrong to have childrens' names registered. It will remain with them for the rest of their lives."
But the amendment failed after law enforcement and drug control officials explained that Ritalin is overly prescribed by doctors and abused by children, who have been caught selling the drugs in schools.
"It's not a head-hunting mission," said Lisa McElhaney, a detective at the Broward County Sheriff's Office who spoke to a House committee Wednesday. "This is a very serious public health and safety issue."
The database would begin July 2003. State officials disagree over how much the system will cost beyond the initial $7-million.
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