“The DEA Thinks Medical Records Don’t Count as ‘Private'”

From vice.com:

If last month’s revelation that the the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has been keeping a database of phone logs since 1986 wasn’t bad enough, here’s further proof of the intrusiveness of the agency’s tactics: a lawsuit being fought between the DEA, Oregon, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) hinges on the fact that the drug warriors believe they should have easy access to the Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) database and have been acting on that belief, even though it contradicts state law. In plain English, the DEA says that if your medical records are shared with a pharmacy—something that happens routinely thanks to the PDMP—you lose the right to assume that that information is private, even if lawmakers in your state disagree with law enforcement.

The article states that the Oregon PDMP database

…includes “the patient’s name, address, and date of birth, pharmacy and prescriber information, and specific prescription information including the drug name and dosage, when it was prescribed, and when it was dispensed” for drugs that qualify as controlled substances.

It’s further states:

The state of Oregon sued the DEA last November, arguing that the PDMP system was specifically designed to keep law enforcement from viewing patients’ sensitive records, and the ACLU jumped in on the side of privacy rights a few months later. The question isn’t whether the DEA could arrest a few more prescription drug abusers by viewing PDMP records than they would otherwise, it’s whether they should have that power in the first place.

Their justification for their lawlessness:

The basis for the DEA’s legal argument is the third-party doctrine, the precedent the government leans on if it wants to look into your credit card charges, your utilities bills, your emails, or anything else that you have shared with someone else. The Fourth Amendment protects you against “unreasonable search and seizure,” but increasingly, in an era where the vast majority of our private communications go through a third party, law enforcement is expanding the definition of what a “reasonable” search is.

This is all new to me, having never heard of PDMPs before reading the Vice article. So, I did a bit of research and found that the government wants to integrate interstate pharmaceutical records into its electronic health records database.

According to the SAMHSA 2012 PDMP EHR Integration and Interoperability Grant Announcement, “49 States have authorization to establish and operate a PDMP and 42 are operational.” More disturbing than that statistic is the fact that physicians and others want easy access to interstate pharmaceutical data. Interstate access of state-held information has long been frowned upon as an infringement of privacy. Nevertheless, from the grant announcement:

In general, practitioners and pharmacists are allowed access to the data to inform their prescribing practice. Opportunities to enhance practitioner and pharmacist utilization of PDMP data include making the appropriate data more accessible by integrating the PDMP into existing systems like EHRs [electronic health records] and pharmacy dispensing systems,  with appropriate privacy protections…

Another opportunity to enhance the utility of PDMPs is State interoperability. While 42 States have operational PDMPs, most do not have State-to-State interoperability in place. While a physician in State A can obtain prescription information on a patient in State A, that physician cannot readily obtain a patient’s prescription history in State B.

According to Wikipedia, PDMPs “serve physicians, Physician Assistants, nurse practitioners, dentists and other prescribers, as well as law-enforcement agencies.” That’s a lot of people having access to the pharmaceutical records of everyone in the United States. We’re talking about people with normal human curiosity being able to look at private information. What does that mean for someone in the middle of a divorce or a child custody case? What if their spouse has access or knows someone with access to these records? Not only do we have to worry about government agents accessing our information, but just about everyone will be able to take a look one way or another.

Perhaps we must just face that fact that there are very few things we can keep private these days. It’s just another part of our lives teetering on another of the government’s slippery slopes.

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