Proposal turns 'sufferers into suspects,' critics say

The North Carolina Sheriffs' Association is pushing the state to open up drug prescription records to police in search of painkiller abusers, a move that has raised alarms among privacy advocates.

The Charlotte News & Observer reports that sheriffs made their proposal to a health care committee working on the problem of prescription drug abuse.

"We take that information, we could go and check against that database and see if that person, in fact, appears to be doctor shopping and obtaining prescriptions for the purpose of resell, which is illegal," said Sheriff Samuel S. Page, president of the sheriffs' association.

But privacy advocates worry that opening the state's database of painkiller prescriptions to police would effectively turn pain sufferers into suspects in criminal cases.

"If access to this database grows, thousands of North Carolina residents — most of whom have no agenda besides getting well — instantly become potential suspects," says an editorial in the Gastonia, NC, Gazette. "One of the firewalls protecting private information will crumble. Doctors already forced to practice defensive medicine to stay out of civil court will second-guess their decisions even more frequently to stay out of criminal court."

"I am very concerned about the potential privacy issues for people with pain," Candy Pitcher, a volunteer with the American Pain Foundation, told the News & Observer. "I don't feel that I should have to sign away my privacy rights just because I take an opioid under doctor's care."

An ACLU spokesman told the N&O the civil liberties group would likely oppose the sheriff's proposal.

In 2007, North Carolina set up a database of painkiller prescriptions, accessible only to medical staff, that would allow doctors to identify people who "doctor shop" in search of powerful painkillers like OxyContin and Percocet. At that time, the ACLU opposed a proposal to give police access to the database.

Sheriffs across the state argue that giving them access to the database could potentially save lives. "Local sheriffs said that more people in their counties die of accidental overdoses than from homicides," the N&O reported.

But that argument didn't fly with privacy advocates.

"A patient who might rely too much on painkillers qualifies as a medical problem," the Gazette opines. "The possibility ... that we live in an overmedicated culture qualifies as a medical problem. Solutions should be pursued in doctor’s offices, hospitals and universities, not interrogation rooms or jail cells."

The N&O reports that 30 percent of North Carolina residents have received at least one prescription for a drug on the list of controlled substances that appear on the database.

But the paper reports that the database isn't even fully functional yet: Only about 20 percent of the state's doctors have registered to use it, and only about 10 percent of the state's pharmacies are registered.