Potential harm outweighs potential benefits of database

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Clarion this week posed the question of whether the state's proposed prescription drug database, in which would be entered every prescription filled in the state, constituted a useful tool for physicians and pharmacists, or an unreasonable invasion of personal privacy.

The answer is probably both.

The measure, which has been approved by the state Senate and is now in House committees, was pitched by emergency room doctors and the Alaska Pharmacists Association, according to a staff member for sponsor Lyda Green, the Senate President. Benefits would include assurances that medications are being dispensed safely, and alerting medical professionals to possible prescription drug abuse.

Both are valid objectives for the legislation. We certainly can empathize with medical personnel who sometimes need to treat patients without access to their medical history, or pharmacists who suspect a prescription drug is being abused.

However, any time a government considers infringing upon our constitutional rights and compiling such a database certainly qualifies as government monitoring it must balance the public good against the damage it does to our rights to privacy and our protections against unreasonable government searches.

For the good this measure might accomplish, it does far too much damage to personal privacy. The legislation calls for information submitted to the database to include patients' names, the type and strength of drug dispensed, patients' method of payment, as well as the prescribing physician. This information is required for every prescription filled, not just the drugs that pose a risk of addiction and abuse.

The vast majority of patients getting prescriptions filled do so legally and responsibly. The government has no business monitoring our medical records. It's a conversation that should stay between health care provider, pharmacist and patient.

Pharmacies already must submit information on dispensing of controlled drugs to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. If abuse of prescription drugs is truly a problem, state and federal agencies need to be funded sufficiently to combat the problem. Requiring everyone to submit personal information to a government agency in the hopes of catching just a few is unreasonable.

As for prescription drugs that might have harmful interactions, most pharmacies and prescription drug insurance or discount plans already have programs in place to flag potential problems. If such programs need to be expanded, perhaps the state Board of Pharmacy should be authorized to launch a plan with voluntary participation.

We also have serious concerns about the security of such a database. As Rep. Mike Chenault of Nikiski said, "I think security should be very guarded. These are people's medical records. They need to be safeguarded to the extent possible."

Indeed, should the database be compromised, the harm done would compromise any benefits of this legislation.

While this bill may be based on good ideas, the potential harm to personal privacy is simply too great.

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