Our opinion: The data dilemma

In this age of databases, data and personal communications flying hither and yon over wires and microwaves, the question of privacy versus the public good has gained an increasing prominence in the national debate.

From the public good of fighting terrorism versus the vast collection of email transmissions and telecommunications records used by the National Security Administration, from the rights of gun owners not to have their personal collections registered to the problem of guns falling into the wrong hands, and all the issues in between, the debate over government intrusion into people’s lives is both lively and vexing at the same time.

Now comes legislation with very good intentions that sailed through the Pennsylvania House of Representatives this week which would create a confidential database for monitoring the use and abuse of certain prescription drugs in the state.

The idea is to find those patterns that would identify addicts who need treatment and aid law-enforcement agencies trying to stop the illegal diversion of drugs, according to Rep. Matthew Baker of Bradford County. It is that effort to combat drug abuse that is responsible for its broad bipartisan support in the House – 191-7.

To be sure, there is a prescription drug abuse problem in Pennsylvania, which ranks 14th in the number of drug-overdose deaths among all the states.

The information that the state Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs will maintain would include the names of the prescribing physician and patient, the name of the pharmacist or other dispenser, the drug dosage and the source of payment.

It begs obvious questions. How does this affect physician-patient confidentiality? Will the measure’s affect on reducing drug abuse offset what some may perceive as an unreasonable intrusion into privacy? What will it do to combat illegal street sales of presciption drugs? And, if that answer is very little, then can it be compared to the complaint against certain gun control measures that they have no affect on criminal possession? How confidential is confidential?

These are difficult questions, and the answers depend on who you ask. Some people will be comfortable giving up part of what passes between them and their doctor to state bureaucrats. Others will not.

And, thus the data dilemma of the 21st Century.