State, DHEC to team up to monitor prescription abuse

COLUMBIA -- The hunt for black-market pushers and users of prescription drugs such as OxyContin is going high-tech.

As early as January, a new computer at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control will go online, linking the state's 1,225 independent and chain pharmacies.

From then on, all pharmacies will upload to DHEC information on everyone in South Carolina who buys painkillers, tranquilizers or stimulants. This data includes the patient's name, date of birth, address, kind of medication, dosage and the prescribing doctor.

Some say the new system smacks of "Big Brother," but law officers love it because it will save them time.

"With a few keystrokes, you can get the same information in 15 minutes versus 15 days," said John Ozaluk, the Drug Enforcement Administration's chief in South Carolina.

Currently, to check out a tip that someone is illegally buying drugs at pharmacies, agents often have to visit the store and inspect paper records, Ozaluk said. Agents still will have to investigate cases and prove them in court, he said.

It's unclear how many pill abusers out there are "doctor shoppers," people who go from doctor to doctor, and pharmacy to pharmacy, illegally amassing drugs to use or sell.

But pill abusers also include doctors, nurses and pharmacists who steal, divert or overprescribe drugs, either for their own use or to give to patients or friends.

This year, prescription-drug misuse has prompted state regulators to discipline at least nine doctors, six pharmacists or pharmacy technicians and 58 nurses. Discplined nurses were almost always stealing drugs from hospital storage areas or medicines prescribed for hospital and nursing-home patients, records show.

Law-enforcement officers are cheering the new system.

"It's about time," Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott said. "This is the forgotten drug war."

Currently, drug investigators get tips from a concerned relative, friend or health-care worker. Or police might find pills on someone they're arresting. Investigators then must visit each pharmacy to inspect records.

Beginning next year, DHEC's computer will show quickly if someone is pharmacy-hopping, filing prescriptions from different doctors. It also will show if a doctor or pharmacy is issuing unusual amounts of a drug.

According to the DEA, no breach of confidentiality ever has occurred in programs similar to the one DHEC is setting up.

But libertarians and people with privacy concerns worry that so much confidential data will be stored by one state agency.

"Centralizing those records electronically in one government agency creates too large a risk of unauthorized access to the deeply personal medical information of thousands of law-abiding South Carolina citizens," wrote Gov. Mark Sanford in a June 2006 letter to the Legislature.

Besides a small contingent of drug officers at DHEC and DEA, potential users of the system include the state's 4,313-plus pharmacists, the thousands of doctors who prescribe controlled drugs and the state's medical regulatory boards, according to the 2006 law.

Doctors and pharmacists will be considered a new line of defense. Before they write or fill a prescription, they will be able to check that someone who appears to need a prescription doesn't already have one.

"Security measures will be in place, and access will be controlled," Wilbur Harling, director of DHEC's drug-control bureau, wrote in an e-mail to The State. "If anyone has a question or concern, we will be happy to talk with them about it."