Pa. House OKs monitoring prescription drugs

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HARRISBURG -- A bill that would create a new statewide prescription drug monitoring database, with the goal of tracking the use of commonly abused drugs, including Vicodin and Oxycontin, passed the state House last month and awaits action in the Senate.

The proposal is part of Gov. Tom Corbett's Healthy PA plan, which seeks to overhaul Medicaid and implement a number of other health care-related bills.

The legislation aims to replace the attorney general's existing database, which tracks a more narrow category of prescription drugs and does not make any information collected accessible to doctors and pharmacists, according to a statement from Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, the proposal's sponsor.

"For example, if someone receives prescriptions from two different doctors for a narcotic and goes to two different pharmacies to get the prescriptions filled, that information will show up on the database," Mr. Baker said.

Overdoses of prescription painkillers have more than tripled in the past 20 years, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, killing more than 15,500 people in the United States in 2009.

The new database would include federal schedule II through V drugs, and aims to aid doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement uncover so-called "doctor shopping."

Tracked in the database would be prescriptions for such commonly abused drugs as Vicodin, Oxycontin, Oxymorphone, Valium, Xanax, Ritalin and Adderall, said Chuck Moran, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Medical Society, a physician's group that supported the legislation.

Most other states have some type of prescription drug database, supporters of the bill note.

"Pennsylvania would be behind the curve. ... All the [states] around us have this," said Bruce MacLeod, president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society and medical director for West Penn Hospital's emergency room.

"There is an absolute epidemic out there, especially with these opiates, prescription drugs," said Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, R- Bucks, a longtime supporter of such a database.

The governor's embrace of the idea as part of his Healthy PA plan "was a significant boost for the topic," Mr. Moran said.

The legislation does not offer any additional funds for drug treatment programs.

The bill passed the House by a wide margin, 191-7, despite concerns from some about civil liberties and privacy issues.

The concept of such a database poses inherent privacy risks, and the bill encompasses an overly broad scope of narcotics and stores the data for too many years, said Andy Hoover, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania, which opposed the bill.

"We have an expectation of privacy in our medical records," Mr. Hoover said. The bill was amended to require prosecutors to get a search warrant from a court for certain types of drugs, though not for all.

The legislation -- though likely not in quite the same form -- appears likely to advance in the Senate as well.

Another version of the legislation is in the Senate, said Sen. Pat Vance, R-Cumberland, chair of that chamber's Public Health and Welfare Committee.

Ms. Vance said she believes there should be a database of this kind, but will listen to concerns about privacy and civil liberties.

"How intrusive are we in people's private medical records is another question," she said last week. "I think that's something that we will have to work out."

Ms. Vance, a nurse, said she also hopes to take an approach that is aimed at helping people with an addiction get treatment.

"The person who is doing this obviously needs help," she said.

Other proposals from Mr. Corbett's Healthy PA plan that have already been adopted by the Legislature include an elimination of the six-month waiting period for children enrolling in the Children's Health Insurance Program, and a bill that allows doctors to apologize to patients without fear of having the apology be used as part of a lawsuit against them.

The governor also has suggested several major changes to the state's Medicaid program as part of the plan, all of which would require federal approval.

Kate Giammarise:, 1-717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.

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