Patients have a “diminished expectation of privacy” about their information in the PMP databases

Equivalent to doxing your doc? California to decide limits of access to prescription database

The case against Dr. Alwin Lewis started with a patient’s complaint about his unorthodox diet plan. But it landed at the California Supreme Court with a much broader issue at stake: Whether regulators should have unrestricted access to a state database detailing doctors’ prescribing practices.

Investigators with the Medical Board of California ran Lewis’ name through the database after a patient complained he pushed her to get on his “five-bite” diet program – no breakfast, then just five bites of any food for lunch and dinner. The diet complaint itself got little traction, but investigators did spot in the database possible problems in how the Burbank physician was prescribing medications to other patients.

Partly as a result of that search, the board in 2013 found Lewis kept poor records and had briefly overprescribed medications to two patients, placing him on three years’ administrative probation.

That’s when Lewis turned to the courts, arguing the board had gone fishing for a case against him. In a twist, he asserted that regulators violated not his rights, but those of his patients under the state constitution’s privacy provisions.
Lewis’ lawyer, Ben Fenton of Los Angeles, said regulators should get a court order or a signed patient release to look through the databases, just as they must do for a patient’s medical records. After losing at lower court levels, Fenton took the case to the state Supreme Court, which has agreed to hear it this year but not scheduled a date.

Though access by law enforcement officials to prescription databases has been challenged in various states – successfully in Oregon — the California case is believed to be among the first in the country to challenge unrestricted access by medical boards to state prescription drug databases.

Legal fallout of the case would be limited to California but the court battle has drawn national interest, with the American Medical Association weighing in with an amicus brief on Lewis’ behalf, along with the California Medical Association.

The California database, maintained by the state Department of Justice, contains details including physicians’ and patients’ names and is based on weekly reports from pharmacies about prescriptions they have filled for certain high-risk drugs including powerful painkillers. By law, the justice department must provide reports to certain civil and criminal investigators and no court order or warrant is required for access, including for medical board investigators.

Like California, nearly every state now has prescription drug monitoring programs, often known by their acronym PDMP. PDMPs were set up to detect “doctor shopping” by addicts and dealers who seek pain prescriptions from multiple physicians – the purpose that often gets the most attention. But those databases also give licensing boards and law enforcement a way to spot and rein in reckless prescribing by doctors.

In other states, the American Civil Liberties Union and others have argued that law enforcement ought to meet a “probable cause” standard before getting such records. But Nate Wessler, an ACLU attorney who has brought such cases, agreed with Fenton that medical licensing officials, as well, should meet some legal standard before getting into the records. check

“At the end of the day, it’s patients’ records that are being searched,” Wessler said.

As it stands, states tend to put up few barriers to medical licensing boards seeking information as part of their duties. Experts at the PDMP Center for Excellence at Brandeis University outside Boston knew of only one state — Iowa – that requires medical boards get a court order before looking at the databases.

Thomas Clark, a researcher at the center, said he worries a decision in Lewis’ favor could encourage states to erect new hurdles to licensing boards, which can use the databases to monitor how medical providers are prescribing some of the most dangerous and addictive medications.

“That kind of monitoring is extremely important to make sure doctors aren’t overprescribing,” he said.

Lewis’ lawyer, Fenton, noted that the original complaint against his client had nothing to do with drug prescriptions, yet the board still ran Lewis through the voluminous database, which contains patient names and medications.

According to testimony cited in court papers, an investigator with the medical board said officials routinely check the names of physicians under investigation in the database.

None of Lewis’ patients complained about the board’s actions.

The AMA weighed in in support of Lewis. While the organization supports keeping drug prescription databases, “allowing unfettered access by those outside of the health care system to use information in [the databases] violates essential legal and ethical standards of patient privacy,” said Dr. Stephen Permut, chairman elect of the AMA’s board of trustees, in a written statement.

The California board, supported by a series of lower court rulings, says getting a court order could stall the release of records, imperiling patient safety. And it argues the comparison to private medical records is not apt.

The state appeals court agreed. Unlike medical records, prescriptions of controlled substances “are subject to regular scrutiny by law enforcement and regulatory agencies,” the court wrote when turning down Lewis’ appeal. As a result, the court said, patients have a “diminished expectation of privacy” about their information in the databases.

The court added: “If the privacy issue were litigated before accessing [the database], the prescribing physician under investigation could stall the release of these records, which would prevent the state from exercising its police power to protect the public health.”

Clark, of Brandeis, said viewing prescribing data can provide the first sign of a problem with a particular physician or pharmacy. Regulators wouldn’t necessarily know there might be a problem — and know to bother seeking a court order – before they looked at the database, he said.

Requiring a court order first “puts the cart before the horse,” he said, noting that he was offering his personal opinion and not that of Brandeis’ PDMP center.

Privacy concerns have been raised since the prescription drug monitoring programs programs began getting more federal grant money about a decade ago to help deal with prescription drug abuse, Clark said.

Although he calls the patient privacy argument “bogus,” he suggested there is likely some middle ground. Perhaps the reports could shield certain identifying information from investigators before they get court orders, he suggested.

Too much is at stake to weaken the programs, he said, calling them valuable tools in checking for wrongdoing among patients, doctors and pharmacies alike.

“Any one of them could be doing something potentially risky,” he said.

6 Responses

  1. I was recently told by a nurse at the hospital that once information is entered into your electronic health record, it cannot be removed — doesn’t matter if it’s true or not.

    So if a doctor believes a patient isn’t using her prescriptions (maybe because of an inaccurate drug test result) and is illegally selling them, that doctor will input that information into both your EHR and a PDMP. The doctor doesn’t need to be right — a drug test result is all that’s needed to label you for life.

    I assume information cannot be removed from the PDMPs either. Once your records say you are a drug seeker, addict, or criminal, those labels will follow you forever. Every doctor you see will view that information, and my guess is that there will be many doctors who will refuse to treat any patient with those labels, especially pain patients.

    Nothing can protect patients from the drug war, including HIPAA.

  2. For those few who are doing the wrong thing, let’s look at EVERYBODY’S medical information. Don’t think, “Oh, it’s just medication.” With that information, it is extremely easy to figure out what diagnoses a patient may have. For instance, if a patient is on a controlled pychiatric medication, their presciber is a psychiatric provider, it’s not a huge leap to deduce,”This patient must have a psychological issue”.

    It IS a violation of privacy rights, always has been. Because the police cannot do their job, we ALL lose our rights. Sounds fair and just to me. How about YOU.

  3. George Orwell was right. Big Brother is watching!

  4. PDMP… open law enforcement don’t need warrants always…..many times they can just “say ” they are doing an investigation. Who can’t see this data? In Alabama, you the patient are expressly prohibited from reviewing YOUR OWN RECORDS even if you contest the accuracy. I have had eleven errors that I know of in my records since early 2011!

    • That is against Federal HIPAA laws. Look it up. I was a HIPAA Privacy Officer and you not only have the right to review your records, you have the right to suggest changes. If they disagree, they must tell you, in writing, and include your suggestions in the record permanently.

      Look it up, I know my stuff!

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