Yet, the public knows very little about the dead. Stigma around addiction combined with well intentioned and often justifiable protection of medical information have made data on the people who are dying in the epidemic difficult to come by.
To reverse the epidemic’s escalation, Maine needs more — not less — information about those who are dying, so lawmakers can make sound, well-informed policy decisions, and doctors can improve the way they care for people with addiction.
The Maine Department of Health and Human Services has an opportunity to provide much-needed information on the epidemic to the public. The department has statistics showing how many people had contact with a doctor soon before dying of drug overdoses in 2016. But instead of releasing the information, it is choosing to stay silent and has declined to allow a researcher and family physician, Dr. David Loxterkamp, and the BDN to publicize it.
Withholding findings of anonymized data that could inform public policy on what is currently the state’s greatest public health emergency is inexcusable.
The data cannot be automatically released because they are property of the state’s prescription monitoring program, which is overseen by DHHS and tracks prescriptions for medications with potential for abuse or addiction, such as oxycodone or codeine. And Maine statute specifically exempts prescription monitoring information from release under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act, which allows journalists and the public access to government records.
But DHHS can, by law, allow prescription monitoring information to be released for “public research, policy or education purposes as long as all information reasonably likely to reveal the patient … has been removed.”
Loxterkamp, who is co-medical director of the Seaport Community Health Center Recovery Program in Belfast, compiled the data for an article he is writing for a medical journal by physically examining death records at the state’s Office of Chief Medical Examiner. The medical examiner’s office, which falls under the direction of the attorney general, provided him with access to the records.
Loxterkamp and the BDN have asked DHHS for permission to publish completely anonymous findings of the data. “I will use no identifying information, only aggregate data,” Loxterkamp wrote in a July 17 email to the department.
DHHS has denied the requests on the main ground that the information is identifiable.
This is flimsy justification. The BDN had asked to share broad statistics only, not the whole dataset, which anyway does not contain names, dates of birth or the addresses where deaths took place.
DHHS’ instinct to withhold information is not entirely surprising given the department’s history of nontransparent dealings under the LePage administration. But it doesn’t make it OK.
Lawmakers and members of the public who are interested in preventing more opioid deaths ought to demand that the department release the information. The information alone will not, of course, put an end to the epidemic. But it could help.