DES MOINES - A new database is expected to help doctors and pharmacists track drug addicts who "doctor-shop" to get their fix.
State regulators say the centralized computer system will track purchases of most prescription drugs in Iowa. The system, expected to go online in March, was approved by lawmakers in 2006.
The system is designed to block drug abusers who visit multiple doctors to get duplicate prescriptions for powerful medications. They then take the prescriptions to different pharmacists so the pharmacists won't notice they're filling multiple orders for the same person.
Under the new system, Iowa pharmacies will use an Internet-based system to report the prescriptions they fill. Pharmacists and doctors will be able to check the database to see what type of drugs a person has already been prescribed by another doctor.
The program was controversial when it was first proposed, with civil libertarians, patients and some doctors expressing fear that the system would lead to witch hunts against people who use prescribed addictive medications.
Terry Witkowski, a state pharmacy board administrator, said several changes have been made to ease those worries.
For example, the new rules make it harder for police to use the database to search for lawbreakers. Under the new rules, police will have to show that have an open investigation into a specific person and then ask board staff to check the registry.
"They cannot go on a fishing expedition," Witkowski said.
Only health-care providers will have direct access to the database and even they will have to sign statements saying they are looking for a specific person, she said.
Witkowski said the state also has dropped plans to include a computer program that would automatically scan the registry, looking for people with multiple prescriptions for the same drug.
Randall Wilson, the legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Iowa, said the group is more comfortable with the new plan.
"Of course, we're always worried about big databases that contain a lot of personal information," he said. "However, we're feeling much better about it than we did."
Thomas Temple, executive vice president of the Iowa Pharmacy Association, said the database is still a work in progress and that some members have mixed feelings about the system, which is being funded by a $400,000 federal grant.
Pharmacies are being asked to provide all their information from 2008 and will soon be expected to report up-to-date prescription orders. It's not clear how difficult it will be for pharmacies to link up with the database, he said.
"Once we get past the preliminary implementation headaches, this program could be very valuable," Temple said.