Back in March, I used Vermont’s Prescription Monitoring System (VPMS) as an example of a growing privacy problem: People turn over sensitive information to a government agency or research group under solemn assurances of confidentiality, only to find those assurances subsequently repealed or ignored. Two of my other examples were “sealed” adoption records which were later unsealed, and the Belfast Project‘s oral histories, which were demanded from Boston College by the British government in defiance of participant agreements. In all three cases, not only does the rule change represent an unconscionable and unethical breach of trust, but it’s clear that the information would not have been provided in the first place without the guarantee of privacy.
With the end this past weekend of Vermont’s legislative session, I’m pleased to report that, at least in one case, the rules have not changed: It will still require a search warrant for police to access citizens’ prescription drug records in Vermont. Despite heavy pressure from the Governor and from law-enforcement officials, the provisions written into the law in 2006 will remain in place.
Doctors provide their patients’ private data to VPMS in order to promote public health and for other medical purposes, not to support investigation or prosecution by the police. As emphasized by Rep. Ann Pugh, Chair of the House Human Services Committee, “This is a health care tool. It was created as a health care tool, not as an investigative tool.” She thus echoes Rep. Anne Donahue, who remembers the day 6 years ago when she was called upon “to vote on something I was more scared about than anything we’ve ever done. We were emphatic that this be used only as a tool for public health — that we never, ever allow this deeply personal data to be subject to review by law enforcement agencies.” In the words of Allen Gilbert of the Vermont ACLU:
This isn’t about prescription drugs, this is about the government collecting data and promising the information will be kept private and when the government promises to protect our private information in an area as sensitive as medical information, I think it’s reasonable that citizens should be able to trust that government will keep its word.
As with any data, a court can issue a warrant for release of VPMS records under appropriate showing by the government of probable cause. That’s why the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution exists, to assure the public that the government will violate their privacy in only the most carefully constrained circumstances. And so while Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin castigated the legislature’s decision as “irresponsible”, Rep. Pugh said, “We were just not willing to sacrifice Vermonters’ privacy. Law enforcement is really familiar with getting warrants. They’ve been doing that for 200 years.”
And now for at least one more.