A statewide database aimed at cracking down on the state's pill mills leaked thousands of patients' personal information, even though some of the details were not part of any criminal investigation, the American Civil Liberties Union said Tuesday.
Personal details, including dosage amounts, birthdates, addresses and other information was given to Volusia County prosecutors and defense attorneys who were working on six criminal cases. The ACLU said someone who was not part of a criminal investigation found out their prescription information was also given to the lawyers. Someone who received the information noticed a colleague's name on the list and alerted them. But it's unclear how many patients had information leaked who were not part of a criminal investigation.
Florida lawmakers approved the database, which tracks prescriptions for painkillers and other highly abused drugs, in a 2009 vote that split GOP legislators for weeks. The system was plagued by a series of political, legal and financial obstacles. It wasn't up and running until late 2011.
"We want to know how this monumental breach of security and confidentiality occurred, and how a state-mandated database could apparently be so misused that it led to the widespread distribution of intimate medical information unconnected to any ongoing investigation," ACLU of Florida Associate Legal Director Maria Kayanan said in a statement.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health, which oversees the database, said law enforcement officials have a duty to protect the confidentiality of the information during a criminal investigation and implied that did not happen in this case, but did not elaborate.
But the ACLU said law enforcement does not have direct access to the database and that prescription information is only given through the database's program managers. Requests for prescription information to help build criminal cases must also be focused and specific to prevent fishing expeditions.
Law enforcement officials said Florida has become the nation's epicenter of prescription drug abuse, at least in part because it was among several states that were late to implement monitoring programs.
The system was first was hampered by a lack of state funding and was forced to rely, instead, on federal grants and private contributions.
Gov. Rick Scott tried to kill it with help from House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. The Republican governor relented in the face of opposition from Attorney General Pam Bondi, former Senate President Mike Haridopolos and other senators who refused to repeal the law that created the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program.
Scott had questioned the system's effectiveness and said he was worried it might invade patients' privacy, but has since changed his tune and recently signed a bill awarding the database $500,000 in the coming fiscal year.
A spokeswoman for Bondi, who lobbied hard for the program, said there were strong safeguards limiting access to patient information in the program, and stressed those safeguards have not been compromised.
The database is "an important tool in the fight against prescription drug abuse, and for the first time in nearly a decade, prescription drug-related deaths have declined," said spokeswoman Jenn Meale.
Florida deaths due to oxycodone have decreased by 17 percent and the number of doctor shoppers has decreased by nearly 58 percent since the database started, state health officials said.