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Civil Rights Advocates Concerned Over New Law Authorizing Drug Database In Pennsylvania

By Cherri Gregg

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- Pennsylvania doctors and DA's are celebrating a new law signed by Governor Tom Corbett this week that creates a statewide database to monitor prescription drug use. Supporters say its a weapon against heroin addiction. But there are privacy concerns.

Scot Chadwick is legislative counsel at the Pennsylvania Medical Society. He says they lobbied hard for the law, which will help doctors identify doctor shoppers -- patients who go from doctor to doctor to get prescriptions for opioid pain killers.

"Right now, physicians are flying blind," Chadwick says, "We are absolutely thrilled-- this is something we have wanted for a long time."

"We were only one of two states that did not track virtually all prescription drugs this legislation fixes that problem," says Greg Rowe, Legislative Chief for the Philadelphia DA's office. He says it'll help law enforcement identify pill mills.

"Prescription drug monitoring programs do help reduce prescription drug overdoses, doctor shopping and ultimately heroin overdoses," he says, noting that prescription drugs are usually the "gateway" to heroin use.

ACLU of Pennsylvania's legislative director Andy Hoover lobbied against passage of the law because he says DA's can get access to data without proving probable cause. For the most controlled substances (Schedule 2 drugs) they can get access through the Attorney General's office. For less powerful drugs (Schedule 3), law enforcement only need prove "reasonable suspicion" to get a court order for prescription drug data. The standard under the new law is the same used for a car stop.

"It's a standard that is used where people have less expectation of privacy -- we believe people have a high expectation of privacy in the prescription medical records," says Hoover, who fears an overzealous DA will abuse the lower standard for prescription drug access.

"When they're given more power, innocent people get hurt," he says, "and this is no way to fight the war on drugs -- it cuts off the source and allows prosecutors to bring charges against people. We can't incarcerate our way out of the drug abuse problem."

But Rowe defends the current privacy protections in the law.

"Pennsylvania will have greater privacy protection that half of the states that have prescription database monitoring," says Rowe.

When the law goes into effect next June -- Pennsylvania will join the 48 other states that monitor prescription drug use.

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