Investigators would have to get subpoenas to access prescription drug records stored in a controversial statewide database under a Senate proposal up for debate next week.
Senate Health Policy Chairman Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, said he filed the bill (SB 7016) to enhance security of the state's prescription-drug monitoring program, or PDMP.
The measure comes in response to the release earlier this year of the prescription drug histories of more than 3,300 people to defense attorneys after a drug sting in Volusia County.
"We're going to tighten it down," Bean said Thursday. "It was going to be a top-secret database that was going to be restricted and was only going to be used for specific purposes. We saw that the bolts weren't as tight as they needed to be. So we're going to tighten the bolts."
Bean's bill would also require the PDMP manager to redact all other personal information unrelated to prescription drug abuse before releasing it to investigators.
But Attorney General Pam Bondi, an ardent proponent of the PDMP who helped persuade a once-reluctant Gov. Rick Scott to sign off on the database, does not believe the changes are necessary.
"We support the protocol currently in place that allows law enforcement the timely access they need to identify and stop prescription drug abuse," Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Meale said.
A Scott spokeswoman said the governor's office is reviewing the legislation.
This spring, a Federal Drug Administration investigator generated thousands of records as part of an inter-agency prescription fraud case that resulted in the arrests of seven people, six of whom were charged with crimes.
Daytona Beach lawyer Michael Lambert, whose name and prescription drug history were included in the list of 3,300 others released by State Attorney R.J. Larizza to defense attorneys, is challenging the constitutionality of the database in court. While Lambert's name and drug history were included in the list, he was not under investigation. Bondi, whose office is representing Larizza, asked a judge to dismiss the case. No ruling has been made.
Since the release of the records in May, the Florida Department of Health, which oversees the drug database, held two workshops on the issue and is close to proposing new rules strengthening security for the program. The proposed rules, among other things, would narrow the number of names that result from a search by eliminating queries for names that sound like others.
But lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida, which opposed the database from the beginning, believe the agency's proposed changes don't go far enough. The ACLU wanted state laws changed so that investigators would be forced to get warrants before asking for records.
Bean's proposal appears to be a "step in the right direction," ACLU of Florida lawyer Maria Kayanan said Thursday.
"At first blush this bill appears to be a significant attempt to address the shortcomings of the current law," Kayanan said.
Requiring a subpoena for investigators to even request database records "should be a big step toward preventing the types of widespread fishing expeditions that were brought to light last year," she said.
Bean's committee is slated to consider the bill Tuesday.
According to the PDMP annual report, the database, which went live two years ago, contains more than 87 million prescriptions, and law enforcement investigators tapped into the records more than 33,000 times, an average of nearly 50 daily requests, in 2013.
Florida law requires that pharmacists enter all prescriptions for controlled substances, including medications like oxycodone and Valium, into the database. Doctors are not required to consult it before writing prescriptions. Law enforcement officials are permitted to seek records from the database for active investigations.
Bean said he also plans to file a measure that would permanently fund the database, financially troubled since its inception in 2009, with a portion of pharmacists' licensure renewal fees.
Lawmakers barred the use of state funds or drug-company contributions to pay for operating the database. The Legislature this year agreed for the first time to a one-time $500,000 allocation for the program.
Pharmacists are now offering to use a portion of their licensing fees to cover the cost of the program, Florida Pharmacy Association Executive Vice President Michael Jackson confirmed. The fees go into a trust fund that covers the costs of regulation. The trust fund had nearly $1 million left over at the end of the last fiscal year and is projected to have at least $500,000 in the next few years, according to Department of Health documents.