Secret medical database

By Vin Suprynowicz
web posted April 24, 2000

In a 1994 study, the Agency for Health Care Policy and Research -- a division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services -- found 42 percent of American cancer patients receive inadequate medication for pain.

"Physicians are reluctant to prescribe high doses of morphine for fear of drawing attention, and possible punishment, from agencies that regulate narcotics," the AHCPR reported, launching a nationwide campaign to get chronic pain sufferers the treatment they need.

Where are we now, more than five years later?

"Joanee" -- the state bureaucrats of today's "Nevada Prescription Controlled Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force" won't give out their last names, or even where they work -- responds over the telephone that the secret computerized database she maintains, listing every prescription painkiller prescribed in Nevada, isn't supposed to discourage proper pain treatment. It isn't supposed to be used to go after doctors.

It's just supposed to help the state identify patients who may be going from doctor to doctor to seek such prescriptions by the handful, so they can be encouraged to seek treatment.

"This is an intervention task force, not a criminal one," purrs "Joanee" in a copyright story by Review-Journal reporter Jan Moller.

"No one wants to see someone put in jail" for abusing prescription drugs, agrees Pharmacy Board Director Keith McDonald.

But intentions notwithstanding, Jerry Hafen, a supervisor in the Las Vegas field office of the state Division of Investigations, tells reporter Moller that's not always how things work out.

Making use of the secret database, "We will go to the Pharmacy Board and say, 'Who are your top 10 doctors who are prescribing these particular types of drugs?' " Hafen says. "Then we'll look at those docs. ... By all means, we take people to jail every day for submitting false or forged prescriptions for controlled substances."

Sick people sent to jail? Goodness. But that still shouldn't have a chilling effect on individual doctors, so long as they don't participate in fraud or forgery, right?

In the spring of 1993, federal agents arrested Las Vegas physician and Vietnam veteran Dietrich Stoermer. Much of Dietrich Stoermer's Las Vegas practice had come to involve treating patients bent over from chronic pain, since other doctors were ... well, afraid to treat them.

In 1993, federal agents charged Dietrich Stoermer with 16 counts of improperly distributing prescription drugs. But defense attorney Lamond Mills successfully pointed out the secret tape recordings made by undercover agents showed Dr. Stoermer persistently questioning the government plants about their made-up symptoms, refusing to simply write pain-killer prescriptions on demand.

After only a few hours of deliberation, a citizen jury unanimously acquitted Dr. Dietrich Stoermer on all charges on Dec. 15, 1993.

Undaunted, in early 1994 the federal drug regulators cancelled Dr. Stoermer's DEA license number -- a number required to write prescriptions for any pain-killing drug -- anyway.

"They don't use the word 'innocent' in the legal process," explained Drug Enforcement Administration spokesman Ralph Lockridge in Los Angeles. "It's 'not guilty.' ... 'Not guilty' can be based on a technicality. There's a different evidentiary standard for an administrative process. ..." Which is why the DEA felt perfectly free to drive Dr. Stoermer out of the practice of medicine in this country -- he eventually moved back to Australia -- despite the jury's unanimous "not guilty" verdict.

So: What's the magic number of pain-killer prescriptions a Nevada practitioner should avoid, in order to avoid being "red-flagged" for such attention?

They can't find out, because everything about the computer database of the Controlled Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force is secret. The names of the bureaucrats who run it are secret. The names of the two drug companies that donated $180,000 to help set it up are secret. The information on the database itself is not open to the public -- or even to doctors.

Everything has to be kept secret because disclosure "might make doctors fearful of writing pain prescriptions," explains Mr. McDonald of the state Pharmacy Board.

Ah. So the way to encourage doctors to do a conscientious job is to tell them: "We'll come to arrest you if you write too many pain-killer prescriptions, but we're not going to tell you in advance how many is 'too many' "?

Besides, Mr. McDonald coos, "You have some people who just wouldn't like it, who don't want you to have any information about them, including their address or Social Security number."

So it's alright for every cop and bureaucrat employed by the state of Nevada to access and investigate our names, our addresses, our Social Security numbers, and our medical histories, just because the doctor or dentist was considerate enough to write us up for a few Vicodin or Tylenol 3 after our last office visit ... but we can't let the taxpayer actually go and see whether his or her name might be on the list -- perhaps even in error? And this is all to protect the citizens' privacy?

If it's inappropriate for the state to release the information it gathers, the correct solution is to bar the state from gathering or compiling such information in the first place. Secret medical databases under government control and open to police use are extremely dangerous.

And databases which trip red flags that say "Investigate this doctor," without informing our doctors of what precisely will cause those red flags to go up, are dangerous, counterproductive, and absurd, contributing to precisely the sadistic and physically damaging undermedication of pain which the federal government has now been warning us about for years.

Vin Suprynowicz is assistant editorial page editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. His book, "Send in the Waco Killers: Essays on the Freedom Movement, 1993-1998," is available by dialing 1-800-244-2224; or via web site

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