Tool could aid po­lice, draws pri­vacy con­cern

N.J. con­sid­ers open­ing ac­cess to pre­scrip­tion data­base

The Denver Post - - NEWS - By Michael Catal­ini

TREN­TON, N.J.» New Jer­sey is the lat­est state amid a na­tional opi­oid cri­sis to con­sider al­low­ing po­lice and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials to ac­cess its pre­scrip­tion drug mon­i­tor­ing data­base with­out a court order, pit­ting pa­tient rights to pri­vacy against the gov­ern­ment’s abil­ity to in­ves­ti­gate so-called doc­tor shop­ping.

Repub­li­can state Sen. Robert Singer in­tro­duced the leg­is­la­tion Tues­day af­ter dis­cus­sions with a county pros­e­cu­tor, ar­gu­ing that the leg­is­la­tion will help of­fi­cials tar­get physi­cians who might be pre­scrib­ing pow­er­ful pre­scrip­tion med­i­ca­tions il­lic­itly.

“We are in a cri­sis in this coun­try. And when you’re in a cri­sis form, you have to take cer­tain ac­tions,” Singer said. “This ac­tion is an­other tool in their arse­nal.”

But the leg­is­la­tion faces pow­er­ful op­po­nents in New Jer­sey, chiefly Repub­li­can Gov. Chris Christie.

Na­tion­ally, the num­ber of deaths from opi­oid drugs topped 30,000 in 2015, nearly dou­ble the rate from a decade ago, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional In­sti­tutes for Health. Across the coun­try, states have im­ple­mented pre­scrip­tion drug mon­i­tor­ing data­bases that al­low phar­ma­cists, doc­tors and law en­force­ment to track who may be giv­ing out too many con­trolled sub­stances.

The pro­posed law in New Jer­sey comes as states across the coun­try are grap­pling with how much lee­way to give of­fi­cials and law en­force­ment when it comes to ex­am­in­ing the data­bases. In Rhode Is­land, Demo­cratic Gov. Gina Rai­mondo signed a new law sim­i­lar to Singer’s pro­posal.

In Cal­i­for­nia, the Supreme Court ruled re­cently that the state Med­i­cal Board can dig through pre­scrip­tion drug records with­out a war­rant or sub­poena.

Christie has made ad­dress­ing the state and na­tion’s opi­oid epi­demic his top pri­or­ity, in­clud­ing lead­ing a White House com­mis­sion on the cri­sis. A video show­ing him dis­cussing a friend with an ad­dic­tion to opi­oid painkillers was the mo­ment dur­ing his failed pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that most con­nected with vot­ers.

Christie put his op­po­si­tion to the new bill in con­sti­tu­tional terms, say­ing that he doesn’t want pros­e­cu­tors to “troll that stuff.”

“You shouldn’t just be able to look at it for jol­lies,” said Christie, whose anti-opi­oid com­mis­sion is set to pub­lish an in­terim re­port by the end of July af­ter its re­lease was de­layed by more than a month. “If you have a case and you have some prob­a­ble cause, OK that’s fine. Go to a court and get a judge to give you per­mis­sion to look at that in­for­ma­tion.”

Other op­po­nents have pri­vacy con­cerns about the New Jer­sey pro­posal. Roseanne Scotti, state direc­tor of the non­profit non­par­ti­san Drug Pol­icy Al­liance, says al­low­ing broader ac­cess sets the state down a “slip­pery slope” to­ward pri­vacy ero­sion.

“Broadly al­low­ing lo­cal po­lice to look into peo­ple’s pri­vate med­i­cal records with­out a war­rant or rea­son­able sus­pi­cion is ap­palling,” Scotti said.

Singer says he’s heard from New Jer­sey pros­e­cu­tors who say they need the tool and that the pri­vacy con­cerns are overblown com­pared with the ef­fects of the opi­oid cri­sis.

“Talk about things be­ing tracked. EZPass, Ama­zon, your phone. Ev­ery­thing is be­ing tracked to­day,” he said. “The world has changed on pri­vacy.”

Christie, a for­mer U.S. at­tor­ney, didn’t rule out look­ing more closely at the bill if it gets to his desk but said that as a pros­e­cu­tor he’s op­posed to it.

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