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Police Officials Say Patient Privacy Law Pulls Shroud Over Drug OD Data

At national drug summit for law enforcement, one chief says he has to subpoena overdose records from medical examiner's office.

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A lack of recent data on drug deaths -- especially heroin overdoses -- is hampering the ability of law enforcement to combat the growing drug-abuse crisis that has been soaring for more than a decade, police officials said Wednesday at a national summit on drug abuse.

Nearly every police official who spoke at Wednesday’s first national gathering of law enforcement officials to focus on drug abuse, organized by the Police Executive Research Forum, complained about the lack of current data on overdoses, with several blaming patient privacy laws. The problem is so bad that one law enforcement official said his department has to subpoena overdose data from the local medical examiner.

"I don't care about the names of the individuals, I just need the numbers!" declared Philadelphia Police Chief Charles Ramsay, noting similar difficulties in obtaining accurate data in his city.

Many also complained of a lack of data on overdose "drop-offs" – not just of heroin but also prescription painkillers -- at hospital emergency rooms.

Overdoses from abuse of opiates, notably heroin and prescription painkillers, have been rising alarmingly since 1992, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. The number of drug overdose death jumped 102 percent from 1999 to 2010 alone, it said.

Officials of the New York Police Department and Dr. Roger Mitchell of the Washington, D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office suggested that a system similar to Compstat – a computer system that gives police near-real-time data on other crimes – to address the dearth of drug data.

Some departments already are taking matters into their own hands.

For instance, police in Washington, D.C., have begun mapping locations where naloxone – a powerful anti-overdose drug -- is used by firefighters and emergency medical technicians to determine where high drug-use areas are in the city.

And the NYPD said it is coordinating with New York City health officials to create similar data points in an ongoing trial program.

Locating drug abuse centers isn’t always easy.

Police Chief Thomas Smith of St. Paul, Minn., for example, told the group that while heroin overdoses have flattened or started to recede in his city, the more affluent suburbs of the greater Minneapolis area are seeing significant increases.

And Police Chief Ed Walsh of Taunton, Mass, a quintessential New England town of 55,000 residents, said health officials there logged 130 overdoses last year, and nine overdose deaths already this year. He said that heroin sells as cheap as $4 per packet in his town.

That discussion of how to stop the rising tide of death due to illegal drugs is one that needs to happen not just among law enforcement but among public health officials, said many of the approximately 200 police officials attending the summit.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder echoed that sentiment in a Q&A period with the chiefs, saying, “There has to be a law enforcement response to this but we also need to think of this as a public problem.”

Holder, asked if there was a lack of urgency to address the abuse of heroin and other opiates when the problem first began to peak several years ago, acknowledged, “This kind of sneaked up on us.” Holder who gave out his agency’s phone number and invited law enforcement to call him on the heroin-related issues told law enforcement leaders, “No question that is something we have to deal with.”

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