WRAL Investigates

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

Posted October 18, 2010 6:00 p.m. EDT
Updated October 18, 2010 9:15 p.m. EDT


— 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.