In 1999, 6.4 Floridians per 100,000 died from drug overdoses. Today, that number is up 16.4, and the Sunshine State has the 11th highest OD death rate in America.
Known for unscrupulous clinics, doctors and pharmacies, Florida has become a magnet for prescription-drug users and traffickers.
That's why, two years ago, the Legislature created E-FORSCE, a database to track prescription drug users.
However, the foreseeable happened. In June, the records of 3,300 prescription drug users were improperly released to defense attorneys after a federal drug sting in Volusia County.
On Wednesday, Senate Health Policy Chair Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, pushed for change: "Certainly no one wants to prevent them from going after bad guys. I'm just tired of getting spied on. Our government listens to our phone calls. Our government reads our emails. I just want government out of our medicine chest."
Worried they'll lose a valuable tool, the law enforcement community disagrees.
"We do use this very valuable database, and have made significant cases in doctor shopping," said Highlands County Sheriff Susan Benton.
Prescription drug abuse and doctor shopping, said Lt. Karl Hoglund, chief investigator for the Sebring Police Department, "is a significant problem here."
Currently, said Hoglund, departments must become certified to use the database. When they make a case against a citizen, they submit a request to the database manager.
"They review the request and return a report," Hoglund said.
Under Bean's proposal, investigators would have to convince a judge to issue a subpoena before accessing data.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, a database supporter, and other prosecutors suggest that requiring judges to sign off on the records requests would not only clog the courts, but also slow the cracking of prescription drug-related crimes.
In response on Tuesday, Bean pulled SB 7016 from his committee's agenda, citing the concerns of Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg.
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Bean hasn't given up on the bill and called his proposed subpoena requirement "a good starting point." It is unclear whether he will strip that from the measure before bringing it back to the committee.
However, he promised that the bill would be heard sometime in the next month. "I don't want to back off privacy. How we get there. I'm open."
Florida law requires that pharmacists enter all prescriptions for controlled substances, including medications like oxycodone and Valium. However, doctors aren't required to consult the database before writing prescriptions.
The database, which went live two years ago, contains more than 87 million prescriptions, and in 2013 investigators tapped into the records more than 33,000 times, an average of nearly 50 daily requests, according to the Florida Prescription Drug Monitoring Program's annual report.
"The PDMP is important and has played a big role in decreasing deaths," Benton said, sharing Florida Sheriff's Association statistics. "Since the launch of Florida's PDMP, passage of HB 7095 and with law enforcement and health regulators working together through regional strike forces, Florida has experienced a:
- 52 percent decline in the number of oxycodone deaths (781 fewer),
- 23 percent decline in hydrocodone deaths (71 fewer) and,
- 23 percent decline in prescription drug deaths (620 fewer).
"The statistics speak for themselves," Benton said.
"The ACLU again emphasizes its opposition to the existence and maintenance of the E-FORCSE database, and our position that 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," said a statement on the ACLU website.
Benton disagreed. "Having to get a subpoena will just create additional time delay and paperwork and getting a subpoena, will not change what happened in that one case where a defense attorney released the information to his buddy lawyer. In fact, the state attorneys of Florida have already put procedures in place for that problem.
Bean raised a valid point, Hoglund conceded. "If the point affects the civil liberties we enjoy, and if they are diminished as a result of a blanket approval, some extent I agree."
But, the officer added, the abuse of prescription drugs is a problem in Highlands County. And if the drug database keeps drugs like Oxycontin out of the hands of his children, "Then I'm on the other side."
Sen. Denise Grimsley, R-Sebring, found middle ground: "If we're going to have reporting of this information to the database, it needs to be secure. Everything hinges on the security of that database. I'm not convinced that the state has done everything it could to emphasize security protocols. We all want to prevent drug abusers and traffickers from getting access to drugs improperly. But average Floridians need to know their privacy isn't up for grabs because the system is vulnerable to hackers."
The News Service of Florida contributed to this story
©2014 the Highlands Today (Sebring, Fla.)