Tag Archives: florida

Access – or lack of access – to health information is making news

Pia Christensen

About Pia Christensen

Pia Christensen (@AHCJ_Pia) is the managing editor/online services for AHCJ. She manages the content and development of healthjournalism.org, coordinates AHCJ's social media efforts and edits and manages production of association guides, programs and newsletters.

key-in-lock-showing-forbidden-information-graphicstockSeveral stories about access to public information have caught my eye in the past week. Whether it involves public health data from Florida, evidence in a federal criminal case or embargoes and favored access at a federal agency, it’s clear that journalists are facing obstacles in ensuring the public’s access to information.

In Rhode Island, a judge ruled in favor of a journalist seeking evidence presented in the trial of a doctor now “serving four life sentences for his role in operating a pain management clinic like a ‘pill mill.'” The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration had refused to release the records since journalist Phil Eil requested them after the trial ended in 2011. Continue reading

Fla. database intended to stop prescription drug abuse is largely unused

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

After years of increasing scrutiny as it sat at what appeared to the epicenter of the national prescription painkiller abuse epidemic, Florida implemented a law requiring that every prescription filed for controlled substances such as prescription painkillers be recorded in a statewide database. A year later, Tampa Bay Times reporter John Woodrow Cox has followed up to see what difference the law has made.

The answer appears to be “hardly any.” Because there is no requirement to use the system when writing prescriptions, Cox writes, “the vast majority of medical practitioners have never touched the much-touted database.” He has assembled some damning numbers to back that observation up.

  • Since the system’s inception on Sept. 1, 2011, more than 48 million prescriptions have been written in Florida for controlled substances — that’s about 2.5 for every man, woman and child in the state. Prescribers, however, checked the database before writing just 2 percent of them.
  • Among physicians in the Tampa Bay area permitted by the federal government to prescribe these potent drugs, fewer than one in 12 has ever used the database.
  • A Times reporter surveyed all 91 local pain-management clinics registered with the state and that appeared to be in business. Fewer than half reported using the program. Employees at 46 of the clinics declined to answer questions or did not respond to calls. One acknowledged never using the program.

Cox digs pretty deep into the issue, but in the end it comes down to a simple observation: When it comes to enforcement, there is neither carrot nor stick. Scrupulous voluntary use of the database would only mean less business for the “pill mills” which account for so many of the state’s prescriptions, so they have no incentive to check it and face no punishment for not doing so. The experience of other states indicates that requiring prescribers to reference the database would make it more effective, but such a mandate appears impossible given Florida’s current political climate.

Florida hospitals sidestep state constitution, keep records under wraps

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Writing for BrowardBulldog.org, an independent investigative news site serving South Florida, Amber Statler-Matthews reports that hospitals are going to what one man called “extraordinary lengths” to prevent patients from accessing records that, according to the Florida constitution’s “Patient’s Right to Know Act,” should be made available.

Seven years ago, Florida voters overwhelmingly approved a Constitutional amendment that gave patients who had been hospitalized the right to see reports dealing with botched medical procedures and poor care. While the amendment could be used to give patients vital information before a medical mistake is made, its practical and more much publicized purpose was to give aggrieved patients more power in court by opening up malpractice complaints and confidential internal reviews of doctors and hospitals.

In the years since the amendment, the state’s courts have been pressed on both sides, with hospitals dedicating considerable resources to throwing up “roadblocks and legal challenges to block access to patient records,” Statler-Matthews writes. “In response, patients across Florida are using the law to ask judges to pry open reports about medical errors.”

For more on how the battle has evolved and details on how Florida hospitals are circumventing the constitution, see Statler-Matthews’ full piece.

Medicaid programs slow to act against system exploiters

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

At ProPublica, senior reporters Charles Ornstein and Tracy Weber have published the latest turn in their ongoing analysis of conflicts of interest, problem physicians and the disciplinary systems meant to reign them in. This time, they look at Medicaid in Florida and find at least three instances when the state “allowed physicians to keep treating and prescribing drugs to the poor amid clear signs of possible misconduct.”

Their piece revolves around those key examples – two of which were, in all seriousness, brought to their attention by a Scientologist-run watchdog website – and I strongly recommend you read the whole thing for the details. Below, I’ve just highlighted the bigger picture.

In general, Ornstein and Weber found, state Medicaid programs, as well as the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which doesn’t track relevant state data, have failed to act on information which seems to strongly indicate that certain physicians are abusing or exploiting state programs.

Medicaid programs across the country have long had evidence that physicians have been prescribing risky drugs in excess and perhaps to the wrong patients. These prescriptions also racked up huge bills for the programs.

But like Florida, many states did not act on that evidence. Last year, (Sen. Charles) Grassley demanded data from each state about its highest prescribers of pain pills and antipsychotics, and he asked state and federal officials to determine whether the prescriptions written by these doctors were legitimate.

Thieves target pharma cargo, cause shortages

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

Reporting for WBBH-Fort Myers, Fla., Andy Pierotti reports that highly specialized thieves have made an art form  of snatching shipping containers in the state, slipping in like ninjas and getting away with the massive haul in fewer than 90 seconds. They’ll take anything they can get, Pierotti writes, but the big prize is a shipment full of pharmaceuticals.

An intercepted shipment, especially one loaded with rare drugs with tight supply chains, can cause nationwide shortages and price hikes, experts say. And, no matter how esoteric the product, the criminals seem to be able to find buyers.

An NBC2 investigation discovered over the last four years in Florida, thieves stole at least 24 cargo containers full of pharmaceuticals. From dialysis products to eye medicine, they were valued at $5.6 million.

Erik Hoffer, an expert in pharmaceutical cargo crime, says the evidence disappears fast.

“Those pills can be blended into real and fake, there’s no way to trace it anymore and you’ve eaten the evidence,” said Hoffer.

Local hospital administrators say they can feel the pinch when a shipment goes missing, and that the problem has worsened in recent years. There are possible solutions, but their implementation would likely spell more price increases.

Possible remedies to the problem include putting tracking devices on individual pill bottles or cartons, and a consumer interactive tool on the pill box that allows them find out [if] it was reported stolen.

The problem is, that’s expensive and the cost would likely be passed down on the customer.

The stolen drugs pose a health risk, as well. One expert says the stolen drugs can be blended with other drugs and resold, with consumers none the wiser.