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Florida tries to shore up security for controversial prescription drug database

12:28 PM, Jul 8, 2013   |    comments
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Just how safe is your confidential medical information?

That's the question being raised after personal medical details of thousands of Floridians were leaked from Florida's controversial Prescription Drug Monitoring Database last month.

The database, also called E-FORCSE, stores vast amounts of confidential medical information about Floridians, including their names, addresses, medications, dosages, even how they pay for prescriptions.

The Florida Legislature created E-FORCSE in 2009 to crack down on a rampant problem with prescription drug abuse and doctor shopping.

The database documents prescriptions for controlled substances and is supposed to be restricted to doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement.

But one broad search by a drug enforcement agent looking for suspects produced details about 3,300 innocent Floridians. Their medical information was inadvertently leaked out.

Now some critics say the database should be eliminated because it's a risk for patients.

On Monday, the Florida Department of Health listened to suggestions on how to improve its security.

Pamela Burch Fort of the American Civil Liberties Union wants the state to ban law enforcement from performing broad searches of the database.

She said searches should be limited to specific people who are the subject of an investigation and the names of those not under investigation should be redacted.

Currently, law enforcement agents do not need a warrant to access the drug database.

Burch Fort said that should change.

"Law enforcement should have access to E-FORCSE only after obtaining a warrant or court order targeting specific individuals or entities for specific crimes supported by probable cause."

A former detective with 27 years of experience at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office opposes a requirement to get a warrant for searches.

Lorrie Abramowitz said the database is working great and is one of the best tools law enforcement has ever had for prescription drug abuse cases.

"Having to get a subpoena or a search warrant to obtain that information would totally slow down the process and put us going backwards rather than forwards in my opinion, because it is working."

Abramowitz credits the database and a crackdown on pill mills for the dramatic reduction in doctor shopping and drug abuse in Florida in recent years.

Supporters of the Prescription Drug Monitoring Database say it has helped lower prescription drug deaths by nearly 20 percent in Florida.

Kim Barnhill of the Department of Health said the agency has already taken several steps to increase security following the database breach.

Now when users sign in on the database, they clearly see the penalties for disclosing any of the information. Also, administrators get a notice when a person uses the system and search results are provided only in a PDF format.

"The department hopes that these security enhancements are a first step forward in ensuring that information received from the database remains confidential," said Barnhill.

The success of the drug database remains a question because very few doctors have been using it, but recent figures indicate more doctors and pharmacists are checking it before dispensing controlled prescription drugs.

Dave Heller

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