Supporters of Florida's prescription-drug-monitoring program, which tracks prescriptions for painkillers and other controlled substances, touted the database as a tool for law enforcement to help catch drug abusers and dealers.
Law enforcers have been able to request information from it since mid-November to aid investigations. And they have taken full advantage of the program — receiving nearly 8,000 investigative reports as of late March.
Advocates for the PDMP, which launched Sept. 1, say the database will help curb Florida's prescription-drug epidemic by deterring and catching rogue doctors and addicts because authorities can now track who receives certain drugs.
More than 38 million dispensing records were uploaded into the PDMP as of April 27, which includes new prescriptions as well as each time someone receives a refill on certain controlled substances.
But defense attorneys say they're concerned that law enforcement has too much access to patient data.
"This has opened up a real issue as far as medical privacy," said Orlando criminal-defense attorney Andrew Moses. "The government now has a database that has a lot of very personal information that can be accessed way too easily."
Law enforcers routinely access private information about suspects through search warrants and other investigative tools, but in those cases, they have to establish probable cause and ask a judge to sign off. Investigators don't need a judge's permission to access the PDMP, but they must show proof of an active investigation.
The Department of Health approved requests for 7,920 investigative reports from the PDMP from Nov. 14 through March 31, according to agency data obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Agent Tom Foy, who works with the Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation, acknowledged that agents are using the database, though he would not be specific about how his agency and others are using the information.
"It doesn't make the case because we have to do other things, but it is a tool that we rely on now," Foy said. "It's a good tool for us."
Seminole County Sheriff's Office investigators have made roughly 36 arrests in cases involving PDMP data, said agency spokeswoman Heather Smith.
Those cases all relate to suspected doctor-shoppers, and several major cases are pending, she said.
Orange County sheriff's detectives say they have been regularly using information from the PDMP and say it has greatly benefited investigations, according to Deputy Ginette Rodriguez.
Federal court records show Drug Enforcement Administration agents are also pulling information from the PDMP. Authorities used program data while building a recent case against Apopka residents Terrie Jaime, Harold Riddle and Eric Riddle.
Jaime is accused of stealing prescriptions from the Apopka doctor's office where she worked.
An agent obtained the prescribing profile for the physician Jaime worked for through the PDMP. The agent used the data to identify suspicious prescriptions, including those written out to Jaime and the Riddle brothers, to whom she is related, and other people, records show.
Agents determined that the group obtained about 50,000 pills — mostly painkillers — from December 2009 to January 2012. Jaime and the Riddles are accused of obtaining 22,360 of those, mostly the highly abused oxycodone.
Senator Mike Fasano, who championed the PDMP, said he has received great feedback from law enforcement about the program.
"Law enforcement was doing their job even before the PDMP, but they were limited at what they could do," Fasano said.
But defense attorneys are apprehensive and warn there could be Fourth Amendment issues when these cases go to trial.
"I am concerned that the statute allows law-enforcement agencies to obtain the confidential medical information of innocent patients without their knowledge or consent," said attorney Bill Ponall, president of the Central Florida Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "As written, I believe the statute could be abused and result in the privacy rights of individuals being violated."
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