The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida is urging the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the release of 3,300 people’s private drug histories from Florida’s prescription database to lawyers in a narcotics sting last month.
The request comes at a time of public outrage over recent disclosures of the federal government’s sweeping-up of private cell phone and e-mail records without users’ knowledge.
The civil rights group alleges that Floridians’ privacy was violated by the state Department of Health, the program manager of the drug database, called ““E-FORCSE” (Electronic Florida On-Line Registry of Controlled Substances Evaluation Program), the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the office of State Attorney R.J. Larizza.
ACLU lawyer Maria Kayanan complained that the Florida health department’s protocol regarding the database is so lax that it encourages law enforcers to engage in “abusive fishing expeditions.” She questioned how many other times investigators have wound up with the names of thousands of individuals who were never accused of a crime.
Larizza gave the list of names to five of six attorneys for defendants accused of prescription drug fraud in May. On Wednesday, he filed court documents showing that the 3,300 names were the result of a 2011 query by a DEA agent investigating a prescription fraud ring.
Michael Lambert, an attorney whose name was on the list but is not accused of any crime, sued Larizza and is also challenging the constitutionality of the law creating the database. Lambert believes it is an unconstitutional violation of privacy and amounts to unreasonable search and seizure.
The drug database records helped nab six suspects in the drug trafficking investigation, in which “thousands upon thousands of narcotic pills were being illegally distributed on the streets of our state,” Larizza wrote in a response to Lambert’s request that the law be blocked and that the people whose names, prescription histories, pharmacies and home addresses were released be notified.
On the same day last week, the Florida Department of Health, which oversees the program, announced it was exploring stricter security measures to help ensure patients’ privacy. The department has scheduled a workshop for July 8, to hear public concerns about the program.
In the ACLU complaint submitted Saturday, Kayanan told federal officials that law enforcers are given too much freedom when seeking records from the database.
Under current guidelines for the program, investigators can use a “wildcard search using partial text,” allowing them to enter partial names or conduct a search for a name that sounds like the subject’s name, Kayanan wrote.
“There is no apparent oversight” of law enforcement’s use of the database “and there is no accountability for its misuse,” she said. “The unacceptably broad queries and apparent lack of oversight invite abusive fishing expeditions by law enforcement agencies that can and, indeed have, revealed to private third parties, the confidential medical and prescription history, along with other personal identifying information, of thousands of individuals who are lawfully prescribed, and lawfully taking, prescription drugs.”
With the widespread use of social media, many people have become jaded about the types of information the government collects, Kayanan said.
“But we don’t expect that once the state has collected our prescription information in an effort to stop pill mills and trafficking of oxycodone that our lawful use of lawfully prescribed medications will end up in the hands of non-government civilian strangers without us even knowing it,” she said.
The ACLU is ramping up its attempt to get state health officials to tell them exactly what DEA Agent Sean Tucker asked for that resulted in so many patients’ drug records being released. Health officials initially said the information sought by the ACLU was exempt from the state’s Sunshine Law because it is part of an active investigation.
But Kayanan, in a renewed public records request Monday, argued that the agency is using a blanket exemption that doesn’t apply in a situation where 3,294 people are not among the six accused in the Volusia County cases. She also wants to know how many times law enforcement agencies have used a broad name search in their queries.
Attorney General Pam Bondi and others insist the database has contributed to a decline in prescription drug overdoses and a sharp decrease in “doctor shopping.”