Posted on June 26th, 2013 No comments
Officials say they’re tightening security of the Florida prescription drug database, after the disclosure last week that names, prescription history and other personal information of 3,300 individuals were released to lawyers of six defendants in a prescription drug fraud sting.
Wednesday’s announcement by Department of Health officials regarding stricter security measures came the same day that the state attorney who released the records revealed details about how an investigation into a drug trafficking ring last month netted so many names of people apparently unrelated to the sting.
Department of Health officials said they are working with law enforcement and Attorney General Pam Bondi, to explore additional safety measures for the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. The safeguards will include limiting the number of people from agencies allowed to use the database, requiring all agency administrators to be notified when someone queries the program and cutting access to those who wrongfully disclose information.
The database first went into use in 2011, as a way to prevent drug-abusers from doctor shopping.
“The PDMP works daily to save the lives of those with prescription narcotic addiction and privacy is job one,” said State Surgeon General and Secretary of Health John Armstrong. “The Department is taking steps forward to put additional safeguards in place to prevent any unauthorized use of information that is intended to save lives.”
Concerns about law enforcement agencies’ use of the database and distribution of records came to light after Daytona Beach attorney Michael Lambert discovered his name was among about 3,300 others whose drug history, doses, pharmacies and home addresses were released to five lawyers representing defendants in a drug sting in May.
Lambert sued State Attorney C.J. Larizza over the list of names and is challenging the constitutionality of the database, calling it an unconstitutional invasion of privacy that subjects individuals to unreasonable searches and seizures.
The list of names was part of a multi-county drug trafficking investigation by state, local and federal agents.
According to court documents filed by Larizza, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Sean Tucker and other investigators queried the database for the prescription drug history of four doctors and their pharmacies, along with six individuals accused of forging prescriptions for hydrocodone and other addictive narcotics.
The search netted 3,300 names and drug histories, including Lambert’s. Agents then asked the doctors to verify the data. The investigation identified 63 fictitious names and seven people whose identities had been stolen by the accused fraudsters, according to the court filings.
“Essentially, the trafficking ring was utilizing false identities and identity theft to procure and distribute narcotic prescription medications. The investigation revealed that thousands upon thousands of narcotic pills were being illegally distributed on the streets of our state,” Larizza wrote in his response.
State law requires that the information from the database remain confidential and makes it a felony to knowingly disseminate the records to unauthorized recipients.
Larizza’s office gave five of the six lawyers representing defendants in the drug cases disks containing the names. One of the lawyers recognized Lambert’s name and alerted him of the possible security breach. Lambert sued, asking Larizza to retrieve the disks and to notify all of the individuals whose names had been released through certified mail.
In Wednesday’s court filing, Larizza said none of the other four lawyers had viewed the data and that only Lambert had not returned the disk to the state attorney’s office.
But the case has raised questions about the security of the database and prompted concerns from some GOP lawmakers who said they want to hold hearings on the issue.
Lambert contends Larizza was wrong to release all of the records to the defense lawyers and asked the judge to block the law regarding the use of the database.
But Larizza argued that Lambert failed to make his case.
“There is sparse, if any, legal precedent providing guidance on what limitations should be placed on the release of discovery materials to the defense under these circumstances. Essentially, the Court must balance the privacy rights of the citizens against the due process rights of the defendants,” he wrote.
Lambert said he had no problem with investigators casting a broad net to identify potential prescription drug fraudsters. But, he said, prosecutors should have redacted the names of the individuals who were not accused.
“Those six people have been identified. I’m not one of those people. Nor were the other 3,300 people…Why does somebody need to know that I’m a legitimate patient lawfully prescribed medication from one of these doctors?” Lambert said.
Lambert said that the new security measures being considered by health officials won’t ensure that innocent patients’ data remains private.
The ACLU, which opposed the database from the beginning, filed a public records request regarding the release of the data but was told the database query is exempt from public records because it is part of an active investigation. ACLU lawyer Maria Kayanan, who requested the records, said she intends to fight for the records and is considering asking the DEA and the Justice Department to investigate.
“To me this is an admission that there have been no accountability standards and there still won’t be until these new rules are adopted and put in place. But at least the Department of Health is aware of the problems and has taken steps to begin addressing the sweeping violations of privacy that have occurred,” Kayanan said. “This is damage control. I think they’re trying to save a database that shouldn’t exist in the first place.”
The Lambert case does not yet have a judge. A circuit judge asked the Florida Supreme Court to assign a judge from outside Larizza’s 7th Circuit jurisdiction, which includes, Flagler, Putnam, St. John’s and Volusia counties.