Federal and state drug agencies want Georgia to create a database of doctors who prescribe pain medications, pharmacists who fill prescriptions for pain medications, and patients who receive prescription pain medications. And law enforcement agencies are employing a full-court press in the General Assembly to get what they want. Whether they succeed against a coalition of state senators and representatives concerned about such a privacy-invasive database, remains very much up in the air as the General Assembly enters the home stretch of its 40-day session. Hanging in the balance is the question of whether law enforcement and regulatory agencies across the state and across the nation will have ready access to Georgia citizens’ private medication records — to be analyzed, cataloged and manipulated in ways they will never know.
It isn’t that law enforcement is interested in data basing every prescription a doctor writes and which a pharmacist fills; at least not yet. The immediate concern is with pain medication; especially those in the opiate family of drugs, such as oxycontin, included on the federal and state “controlled substances” lists. Also included in such a large dragnet, however, are many prescription medications other than pain pills; medications such as sleep aids, behavior drugs like Ritalin, and cold medications including pseudoephedrine.
Granted, these pain medications obviously can be and are abused (as are many medications that do not appear on the federal list); and some people do obtain bogus prescriptions for them, or collect multiple prescriptions and have them filled at different pharmacies in order to disguise the large quantity of the pills they are obtaining. However, the solution being touted by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), by the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, and by similar law enforcement agencies across the country, is the typical one preferred by government at all levels – monitor everybody in order to catch the [relatively] few abusers.
Leaving aside for the moment the fundamental principle that what a doctor prescribes for a patient should be the concern of the doctor and his patient, and not law enforcement or government regulators, the bill pending before the Georgia General Assembly (currently, SB 418) to create a mandatory electronic database to monitor prescription drugs, sweeps far too broadly and raises serious privacy and other constitutional concerns.
This is not the first time Georgia legislators have attempted to push through such database legislation. Last year, a similar bill (HB 614) ultimately died at the end of the session. This year, the move for a drug database is being spearheaded by a freshman Republican state senator from Savannah – Buddy Carter. There is also pressure being created by law enforcement from other states, such as Tennessee, which complain that Georgia’s lack of a drug monitoring system causes a spill-over problem in their states. And, of course, there is the universal incentive for legislation such as the drug database system – federal dollars. At least two federal grant programs are available to be accessed by states that have implemented mandatory prescription drug monitoring programs. Already, this incentive has resulted in nearly 40 states implementing some form of approved drug database system; including all states bordering Georgia.
What has thus far prevented Georgia from jumping on this prescription drug database runaway freight train, has been a group of legislators less worried about federal grant monies and more concerned about patient privacy and burgeoning government databases. These legislators, led by Republican Sen. Preston Smith from Rome, also apparently understand that the problems cited in support of SB 418, can be solved by far less intrusive measures than by subjecting all Georgians to having their most private medical records collected and analyzed by government agents and regulators, in ways and places over which neither the patient nor the doctor has any knowledge or control. Let’s hope they succeed in stopping this defective and unnecessary legislation.