State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Katie Meyer covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.
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Privacy concerns linger around prescription database plan

Written by Mary Wilson, Former Capitol Bureau Chief | May 13, 2014 4:44 AM

State lawmakers, health care professionals, and Governor Corbett agree prescription drug abuse in the commonwealth is reaching epidemic levels. But the GOP-controlled state House and Senate have differing visions as far as how to respond.

The state Senate passed a bill last week to expand a database that monitors who's writing, filling, and receiving prescription drugs. The variety of drugs monitored would grow under the plan - and law enforcement would have more access to the database, requiring only a court order, not a search warrant, for records pertaining to all but the most dangerous drugs.

"We just think we have the right balance between law enforcement access and privacy, as well," said sponsoring Sen. Pat Vance (R-Cumberland), acknowledging the pushback from lawmakers concerned about patient privacy. Last year, the House shot down language similar to what the Senate just passed, opting for a bill that would require law enforcement to have a search warrant before combing the database.

"We have been working with the House, and hopefully we will come to a consensus," said Vance. Under the Senate measure, filled prescriptions would be recorded in the database for drugs ranging from the most dangerous, like methadone, to oxycodone and hydrocodone, anabolic steroids, as well as sleep medicines and the milder prescription pain killers.

"Law enforcement can only access that if they obtain a court order that they have a reasonable suspicion that some illegal activity is going on," said Vance. "And if they get the court order, the information can only be used to obtain a search warrant for investigation, and cannot be used as direct evidence at trial."

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania takes issue with court order provision, saying such orders will be based on an officer or prosecutor's reasonable suspicion.

"This standard is a much lower bar than 'probable cause,' which is the standard currently used to access this data in medical facilities, pharmacies, and a person's home," said ACLU PA legislative director Andy Hoover in a written statement.

"Both sides of the aisle in the Senate were convinced that this was the right way to do it," said Vance.

At a press conference on opioid abuse last Friday in Pittsburgh, Corbett said he supports the Senate's proposal.

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