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Vt. lawmakers debate drug data access by police

By Dave Gram
Associated Press / May 2, 2012
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MONTPELIER, Vt.—Gov. Peter Shumlin in his State of the State address in January cited an "epidemic" of prescription drug abuse in Vermont as justification for allowing police to get access without search warrants to a Health Department database that tracks the medicines Vermont doctors are prescribing for their patients.

Shumlin said his aim was to give "law enforcement the tools they need to track down abusive access so we can fight our prescription drug epidemic. This growing problem is so frightening because while FDA-approved prescription opiates are easy to get, many are just as addicting and dangerous as street heroin and crack cocaine."

With debate over no-warrant police access to the database coming to a head as the legislative session winds down in Montpelier, critics are questioning the severity of the problem and whether it justifies what they see as an erosion of privacy rights granted by the U.S. and Vermont constitutions.

Allen Gilbert, executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which opposes warrantless searches of the database, pointed to data on the Health Department website indicating that the prescription drug abuse problem may be waning already, without granting expanded search powers to the Department of Public Safety's Vermont State Police drug investigators.

"The most recent survey data indicates that the prevalence of prescription drug misuse in Vermont is declining or remaining steady for all drug categories including Rx opiates," said a Health Department report dated this month. "This appears to be a consistent pattern across several independent surveys." The report went on to cite "a low level of student involvement in both opiates ... and stimulants."

A bar chart in the report shows deaths tied to prescription opiates declining every year from 2006 to 2011. More detailed data were available only through 2009. The data showed several types of abuse peaking around 2006 and then starting to decline. "Non-medical use of pain relievers" dropped in all age groups between 2006 and 2009, from 5.1 percent of the general population to 4.6 percent overall.

Vermont dropped from 11th highest in the country in 2006 to 34th highest in prescription in non-medical use of pain relievers between 2003 and 2009, the data showed.

Barbara Cimaglio, deputy health commissioner and head of the Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, and Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn said Vermont remains in an epidemic of prescription drug abuse. Overdose deaths have been cut nearly in half in the past six years, but still numbered more than 40 last year, Health Department data showed.

"If we've saved one life we're doing our jobs," Flynn said. "We can't take our foot off the gas." He said police have been able to collect prescription information from pharmacists without a warrant for decades, arguing that for them do so from a central database would not diminish privacy rights.

Cimaglio said the numbers are worse for certain segments of society -- particularly people in their late teens and 20s -- than in the general population. Data from the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed 14.6 18- to 25-year-olds reported non-medical use of pain relievers within the previous year. That number peaked at 14.7 percent in 2006 and declined to 13.6 percent by 2009.

She also said the numbers of people seeking treatment were up sharply during the past decade, though the Health Department website said other factors are likely in play, including increases in funding for treatment programs and the openings of methadone clinics around the state.

Sen. Richard Sears, D-Bennington, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and a supporter of warrantless police access to the database, expressed surprise when told of the Health Department figures showing a decline in prescription drug abuse.

"That's not the information we were given" in committee hearings, Sears said. "If the statistics don't bear that out, they should have told the governor before he called it an epidemic."

Gilbert said that when lawmakers first authorized creation of the database called the Vermont Prescription Drug Monitoring System in 2006, they promised it would be used only by prescribers and pharmacists -- not police. "This is how it can best be used -- for health purposes, not law enforcement purposes."

Vermont is pushing for broad reforms of its health care system, moving toward a Canadian-style single-payer system that will rely heavily on electronic medical records, Gilbert noted.

"If this bill goes through with warrantless access, nobody should trust promises that state government will keep people's health information private," he said.

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