Gov. Nathan Deal recently signed into law SB 36, the Patient Safety Act of 2011, making Georgia one of the last states in the nation to implement a prescription drug monitoring program to combat the growing problem of prescription drug abuse.
Supported by numerous state pharmacy, physician and other health care groups across the state and nation, SB 36 is the culmination of over three years of work to address this epidemic that has infested our communities.
Prescription drug abuse accounts for more than 30 percent of all drug abuse and is the fastest growing drug abuse problem in our nation. As more potent and addictive drugs have been introduced on the market in recent years, abuse has proliferated.
Rogue doctors with financial gain as their only motive have opened clinics known as “pill mills,” where they sell, and in some cases dispense, prescriptions for these potent painkillers and muscle relaxers in exorbitant quantities. Often these clinics perform no medical exams and only accept cash payments.
With the exception of Florida, which is in the process of establishing a prescription drug monitoring program, every state that borders Georgia currently has a program in place pushing these “pill mills” out of their states and into Georgia. Pharmacists across Georgia are experiencing instances of patients from states as far away as Kentucky and Ohio presenting prescriptions from these “pill mills” to be filled.
So why is Georgia one of the last states in the nation to implement this program, and why did it take more than three years for this to become law?
Some of the primary reasons are the potential financial cost of the program to the state and patient privacy, or the fear of “big government” looking into our residents’ medicine cabinets.
All of these concerns are addressed in SB 36. The program will be established and continued primarily through federal grants and only “upon funds being available,” ensuring that Georgia taxpayers are not burdened with this cost.
Patient privacy is of the utmost priority in SB 36. Once a week pharmacies licensed in Georgia will be required to submit information related to all controlled substances (Oxycontin, Xanax, Soma, etc.) filled to a secure database maintained by the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency. Included will be patient name, prescribing doctor, drug dispensed, quantity, date filled and other pertinent prescription information that is already in most pharmacy computer systems.
The database will be accessible by doctors and pharmacists only. They will be assigned secure passwords and will only be permitted to access their patient’s information. With this information doctors and pharmacists will have the ability to identify those patients “doctor shopping” as well as those patients using multiple pharmacies.
All HIPPA laws relating to patient privacy will be applicable to this database as well as additional penalties for those intentionally misusing this information. Maintaining the security of this information is of such importance that SB 36 includes penalties of fines of $250,000 and five years imprisonment for certain violations.
There will be no “data mining” or surfing of the database by law enforcement or any other agency. Law enforcement, including Georgia Drugs and Narcotics – the administrator of the program, will be allowed access to the database only through a subpoena.
So how will this database assist law enforcement in getting this epidemic under control? Currently, when a case is opened by law enforcement, including agents for Georgia Drugs and Narcotics or the state medical board, they have to visit multiple pharmacies to access prescription records. Access to a central database containing this information, even with the stringent requirements of a subpoena, will save countless man-hours and help expedite investigations.
While not a silver bullet, SB 36 will be a useful tool in assisting doctors and pharmacists, as well as law enforcement, in ridding our communities of the infestation of “pill mills” while maintaining patient privacy.
Carter can be reached at Coverdell Legislative Office Building Room 301-A, Atlanta, Ga, 30334. His Capitol office number is (404) 656-5109.