WRAL Investigates

Access to drug prescription info a touchy topic in N.C.

Posted October 18, 2010

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— Unintentional drug overdoses are the second leading cause of accidental deaths in North Carolina, behind car crashes. More than two thirds of those deaths involve drugs that most people have in their homes.

The state has a tool to track prescription drug abuse and "doctor shopping," but some argue the tool isn't being used enough.

For five years, Sandy Hommel visited doctor after doctor to get her next prescription.

“It just got to where I couldn’t stop taking the pain pills,” she said. “It got to where every morning I would wake up, that’s all I could really think about about – what doctor I was going to go to and what I was going to say this time.”

She started taking pills for a medical condition and, like many others, quickly got hooked.

Lee County Sheriff Tracy Carter says he is concerned about the growing prescription drug problem across the state and especially around his county.

“I think it’s an epidemic,” he said. “The addiction for some of these prescription pills is, in my own opinion, worse than a crack addition.”

State health officials noticed the troubling trends, too. That’s why in July 2007 they launched a prescription drug database. Since then, the program has tracked 46 million prescriptions and 2.7 billion doses of highly addictive prescription medicine.

But it’s who sees that information and what’s done with it that’s hard to swallow for some. Right now, only those writing and filling prescriptions, and the State Bureau of Investigation, have access.

Another issue is that the program is voluntary for doctors and pharmacists. Right now, only about 20 percent of those eligible to contribute to the database are doing it. Carter says that’s not enough.

Carter thinks local law enforcement should have access to that information.

“Give us access, encourage the doctors. I wish they would make it mandatory that they use the system and give us the tools we need,” Carter said.

While there’s little debate that the prescription drug problem is getting out of hand, some argue opening up the database to more eyes is not the answer.

“Our issue is who has access to the database,” said Sarah Preston, legislative counsel for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. “There’s already a lengthy list of people who can look at it, and I think it’s appropriate that doctors and pharmacists can have a look and make sure they’re doing the best thing for the patient, but as far as law enforcement, I just don’t see that as being appropriate.”

While lawmakers debate the access issue, people like Hommel think more access might help people like herself.

“I’ve actually had that happen at a couple hospitals to where they looked up my prescription record … and it did help,” she said. “I don’t know. I did feel like they invaded my privacy at the time, but it did help me realize that I really had a problem.”

Whatever the future holds for the system, Hommel can thank the current version for saving her life.

“On one occasion, my son was with me and the doctors told him that I had taken so many pain pills that it would have killed everyone in that room.”

Right now, the database does not raise red flags when it suspects abuse or doctor shopping. An upgrade that will eventually do that is in the works, but there's no timetable.

17 Comments

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  • thesheriff Oct 19, 2010

    I work in a pharmacy and the only way we can check to see if a patient is early on their meds is by running through insurance at which time the rx is flagged as 'filled at another store' or 'too early' etc. I know abusers request a 'cash fill' where insurance companies are bypassed. The pharmacist and I have no idea how to access this database and it seems that with all the junk pharmacists do recieve, this bit of information should be mentioned. We are an independent drug store so its hard to track abuse.

    My problem with law enforcement access to said database:

    What stops the loose lipped sheriff deputy from leaking information found in the database to the media come around election time. 'It doesn't give medical records' blah blah blah...Reporters and campaign smearers are all too willing to make inferences to make the other guy look bad.

  • oldschooltarheel Oct 19, 2010

    Too bad the doctor shoppers' families get to then sue a physician when their druggie family member gets the ultimate high & dies. No one shoves the pills down their throats - it's totally their own choice to go & ask, whine, cajole & threaten to get their drugs from over worked health care providers. Think they are not persistent? Think they actually pay their medical bills? Think they would actually "man up" & willingly enter drug treatment ( even if they are not footing the bill though it would be so much better if they were)? Wonder why some health care providers are so gun shy about prescribing?
    Here's your sign folks.

  • dixie27591 Oct 19, 2010

    I use to be addicted to pills.I went to several doctors trying to get help for a serious medical condition.I just wanted the pain to go away and know I would still be alive 10 yrs from now.Doctors kept giving me more and more pills.I finally told the doctor I was getting addicted to them and she gave me 180 percocets.When I went to the doctors for pills I never lied about the pain.Some people think addicts should be locked up for first offense but what about the doctors that KEEP giving addicts pain pills even when we tell them we have a problem or we BEG them to help us without pills.I now go to South light for help and have been clean almost 2 yrs now, More people should be informed about South light its a great organization that has helped thousands fight addiction with a successful rate.

  • timbo 2.0 Oct 19, 2010

    "Second, the system is not set up to give away medical information or even extensive personal information. It gives your name, date of birth (law enforcement already has access to) and a list of controlled substance prescriptions that you have had filled. "

    Dude, that's called Personally Identifiable Information, and based on the prescription, a person's medical condition can be ascertained.

    The state has no right to my medical and personal information.

    I don't care who's breaking the law. Not my problem.

    Because someone happens to break the law doesn't not give the state the right to my personal information.

    What's not clear.

    I'm aware that "doctor shopping" is illegal.

  • ne1410s Oct 19, 2010

    What makes me so angry about the database is that my employer does not allow access at work. As a pharmacist, it's crucial that I have access to this information so I can make a judgment call in filling the prescription. Rumors are that we will be given access soon...the sooner the better. If I have a hunch I have to wait until I get home to look it up on my computer....at that point it's too late. My feeling is that all practitioners should HAVE to look up ALL patients on the database if in fact a controlled substance needs to be written...especially ERs in the area. Too many patients lying about what they receive. What's funny is that many MD offices are clueless about the database. What I can't wait for is when NC can tie into a national database....AND to have stiffer penalties for forgeries. Talk about a slap on the wrist! They should be locked up for an extended period of time on the first conviction, not the EIGHTH!

  • hangarbully2002 Oct 19, 2010

    First,if you "doctor shop" you are breaking the law. When you break the law; you are no longer covered by HIPAA; period. Ignorance of the law is not a defense.
    Second, the system is not set up to give away medical information or even extensive personal information. It gives your name, date of birth (law enforcement already has access to) and a list of controlled substance prescriptions that you have had filled. One cannot simply get on there and start "fishing" around for someone to go after; there has to be a reason.
    Third, it takes getting in trouble with the law for people to finally admit/realize that they have a problem; especially with the pills. The courts do NOT just lock them up and throw away the key. They are sent to substance abuse counseling, detox, and maybe even drug court.
    Maybe if mor people were caught there would be less deaths.
    The real issue is the prescribing practices of the doctors.why isn't anyone making a big deal about that??

  • timbo 2.0 Oct 18, 2010

    "If you lie to the doctor or withhold information in order to obtain a lawful prescription for controlled substances, you have committed a FELONY."

    Yep. So what. That doesn't give the state the right to have access to any part of MY medical records.

  • timbo 2.0 Oct 18, 2010

    "This database has nothing to do with medical history or any other 'prescription drugs'."

    Doesn't matter. Medical conditions can be inferred from the information, which violates HIPAA and our right to medical privacy.

  • Jeff_W Oct 18, 2010

    And for your information... HIPAA has provisions for disclosure to law enforcement (under some circumstances to include fraud on the premises). If you lie to the doctor or withhold information in order to obtain a lawful prescription for controlled substances, you have committed a FELONY.

  • Jeff_W Oct 18, 2010

    @ Mulecitybabe... yes it is a violation of the law. Please refer to NC GS 90-108(a)(13) regarding intentional or willful withholding of information from one or more practitioners.

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