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ACLU says drug database fixes don't address privacy concerns

The Department of Health is working on new regulations for the state's prescription drug database program, hoping to address privacy concerns by limiting how and when outside agencies can access it.

Law enforcement says it needs the database to aide investigations of prescription drug abuses and trafficking. But the ACLU and others argue that the database should be tightly controlled, especially when used for non-medical reasons.

The new regulations, presented Tuesday for public comment, require agencies that want to access the database to put trained personnel in place to scrutinize requests and monitor for abuses or non-legitimate queries. It creates new penalties for sharing the database information with unauthorized people.

But that isn't enough, said a lobbyist for the ACLU of Florida, which became a vocal critic of the database when the medication history for 3,300 people was released to five defense attorneys as part of a prescription fraud investigation in Volusia County.

The new rules are "minor, inconsequential, and fail to address the privacy issues brought to light in June 2013," said Pamela Burch Fort. The changes won't prevent law enforcement agencies from going on a "fishing expedition" that breaches the privacy of law-abiding individuals, she added.

DOH officials said they are open to input because addressing these concerns are essential to the success of the fledgling Prescription Drug Monitoring Database program, launched in 2011 to curb the rise of prescription drug abuse. The Florida Police Chiefs Association said the concerns about confidentiality are valid, but the new rules should not impede access to the database.

"We also want to make sure that where there is criminal enterprise taking place, that we have access to the information so that we can in fact act appropriately," said Quincy Police Chief Walter NcNeil, representing the organization.