The federal Drug Enforcement Administration has sued the board that regulates Colorado’s pharmacies, demanding it share information from a database that tracks opioid prescriptions and setting up a clash over patient privacy amid the nation’s overdose epidemic. The requested information is part of an investigation into whether two unnamed pharmacies broke the law in dispensing opioids and other drugs, according to a DEA agent’s declaration filed in the lawsuit.The DEA previously issued administrative subpoenas to the State Board of Pharmacy for the information, which is kept under the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, or PDMP. The program tracks opioid and other drug prescriptions, including the names of doctors, patients and pharmacies. State officials refused to provide the information, though, citing patient privacy concerns. That prompted the lawsuit, which seeks a judge’s order enforcing the subpoenas and was filed last week in federal court in Denver. In addition to the Pharmacy Board, the lawsuit also names Patty Salazar, the head of the state Department of Regulatory Agencies, and Appriss, Inc., a Kentucky company the state pays to collect and maintain the PDMP data.
“The Department of Regulatory Agencies is committed to combating the opioid epidemic that remains a devastating issue for many Colorado communities,” DORA spokeswoman Jillian Sarmo wrote in an emailed statement following the lawsuit’s filing. “We continue to work with our partners in other agencies in this fight, but we have an obligation to do so in a targeted and thoughtful manner that ensures the privacy of the hundreds of thousands of individual patients in the state whose personal prescription records have no connection to any criminal activity and whose disclosure has no relevance to any criminal investigation.”
Federal authorities say they need the patient information to link prescribing and dispensing practices to real-world harm. For instance, they argue in the lawsuit that having the name of a patient could tell them whether that patient overdosed after filling a prescription at a shady pharmacy. Or it could show whether a pharmacy should have noticed that a particular patient was filling suspiciously large and potent orders of drugs.
The DEA also says there are legal limits that prevent it from releasing the information, meaning that patient privacy won’t be compromised.