WSAZ | West Virginia | News

Fighting Prescription Drug Abuse Becomes Privacy Issue

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- The war on prescription drug abuse has been strengthened by access to a computer database that includes that information.

The process allows investigators to see what doctors are prescribing and who is receiving those prescriptions.

About 50 members of law enforcement currently have access to the database to aid in the investigations.

Cabell County Sheriff Tom McComas, who also serves as the President of the West Virginia Sheriff's Association, testified in front of a legislative committee Monday about why he feels that access needs to be spread out to 33 sheriff's deputies around the state of West Virginia.

He believes it would have helped him more quickly build a case against Anita Dawson, a Milton physician who was convicted after nine of her patients died from overdosing on painkillers she prescribed.

Raleigh County Sheriff Steve Tanner says there are many other reasons for wanting expanded access. He is on his fourth time of lobbying for the change. He says access to the records will speed investigations and get drug dealers off the streets.

He says in his region one person a day is dying from a drug overdose and "76 percent of those cases involve (Oxycontin)."

Tanner says we are facing an epidemic.

"It is costing the state billions," he said. "We are on the verge of losing our society as we know it, and the only way we are going to make an impact is with change."

Tanner went on to say, "The way we are doing it isn't working."

West Virginia Board of Pharmacy Executive Director David Potters says the access has been important to fighting the war on drugs, but protecting privacy is an important part of why access should not be expanded.

He points to a precedent set in a court case in the late 70s that points out the importance of this access, but further states it should be limited.

Potters says opening up the database means needing the manpower to make sure that access is properly policed.

He says most requests can be filled in a 24-hour time period, but he believes 24 to 48 hours waiting for a report is the norm -- as it is a part of a bigger case that begins generally from a tip to investigators.

He said that 40 out of the 50 states allow law enforcement access to these databases.

"It is widely seen as a valuable tool, and that is why the sheriffs want to be sure they have good access to it," Potters said, " We just have to balance against opening it up to a point where we are not able to police the use of it."


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