Pharmacy counters became Minnesota's latest dragnet for drug abuse this week with the launch of a state database that tracks users of Vicodin, OxyContin and other addictive painkillers.
Beginning Monday, pharmacies were required to report data on addictive drugs to the Minnesota Prescription Monitoring Program. By late March, doctors, dentists and pharmacists will be able to tap into the system to identify patients who get too many habit-forming medicines.
Minnesota joins 33 other states that monitor prescriptions for controlled substances such as amphetamines, barbiturates and even some diet pills. The state database - funded by a $400,000 federal grant - is expected to track more than a million prescriptions a year.
The aim is to stop drug abusers and dealers from shopping around for prescriptions. By one estimate, Minnesota has more than 100,000 prescription drug abusers.
"It's not going to prevent all drugstore burglaries, it's not going to prevent kids from going into their parents' bathroom and taking stuff out on the street to sell. But it will limit the amount of prescriptions that are written by physicians who think it's a legitimate health care need and have it turn around and end up becoming a street drug," said Sen. Linda Berglin, a Minneapolis Democrat who shepherded the program through the Legislature in 2007.
The database doesn't guarantee that abusers will be stopped. Although dispensers must file reports for the database, doctors and pharmacists aren't required to consult it to see if their patient or customer is a potential drug abuser. And no one is routinely going through reports to find abusers.
Doctors and pharmacists who do consult the database aren't required to report patients they suspect of abuse or to withhold prescriptions from those patients.
Betty Johnson, who manages a pharmacy in a Lund's grocery store in Edina, said she expects the database to come in handy.
"On weekends and evenings when we're not able to call and confirm things with the doctor, it will be nice to have a place to check," said Johnson, who serves on a Pharmacy Board committee overseeing the prescription monitoring program.
Patients should see signs announcing the new system, or get information on a handout or receipt with their prescription. Hospitals, nursing homes, hospices and clinics that administer pain medications directly to patients aren't part of the tracking program.
In Kentucky, which has had a prescription monitoring program since 1999, about a third of health care providers have gotten accounts to look at the state's database.
One Minnesota medical privacy advocate is worried that the monitoring is too broad and could easily be expanded to more kinds of prescription drugs.
"The idea of the database is to eliminate people getting drugs for a habit, but this really indiscriminately puts everybody into the system," said Twila Brase, who heads a St. Paul-based medical privacy group called Citizens' Council on Health Care.
Cody Wiberg, executive director of the state Pharmacy Board, said Minnesota's program is designed to keep prescription data as private as possible: Law enforcement officials will need a court order or search warrant to access the information.
Prescribers and dispensers including physicians, dentists and pharmacists will need to pass a Pharmacy Board licensing and identification check before getting access codes to look at the data. Pharmacy employees who work with authorized pharmacists won't get the codes.
Health care workers can face punishment from their professional licensing boards for looking up data inappropriately. Prescription data will be removed from the system after a year.
Vicodin is likely the most abused prescription drug in Minnesota, Wiberg said, partly because it is easier to get than always popular OxyContin. Both are pain medications.
Wiberg estimated that more than 100,000 Minnesotans abuse prescription drugs based on a state survey.
Relying on federal statistics, Wiberg also estimated that 2,000 to 4,000 Minnesotans are suspected "doctor shoppers," who visit multiple physicians and pharmacies getting prescriptions for drugs to abuse or sell.
In another measure of the problem, the state Department of Human Services said 93 people on subsidized health care programs died of prescription drug overdoses in 2008, and another 42 deaths were classified as possible prescription drug overdoses.
The department has put 1,700 state health care patients on restricted access to physicians, pharmacies and hospitals because of misuse of services, including suspected prescription drug abuse.
The agency plans to use the new database to uncover prescription drug abusers among more than 700,000 people covered by state health care programs.
Berglin said she would like to consider letting law enforcement use the database without a court order once it's established. A spokesman for the state Department of Public Safety said the agency didn't have enough information about the database to comment.
Kentucky lets law enforcement officers use the state's database for any open drug investigation.
Dave Hopkins, who manages Kentucky's program, said the access drastically cut the time it takes to build cases by allowing investigators to pinpoint pharmacies where a drug abuser filled prescriptions, instead of checking with many more pharmacies to find incriminating evidence.
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)