The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) served administrative subpoenas upon the Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP) in 2012, requesting specific protected health information regarding the prescription of schedule II – IV drugs.
Schedule II – IV drugs treat incredibly varied disorders and diseases, including but not limited to the treatment of AIDS, anxiety, depression, PTSD, alcohol and drug withdrawal symptoms, seizures, gender identity disorder or gender dysphoria, testosterone deficiency, and pain. Many of these medicines are closely associated with the conditions they treat, and thus, could reveal private information about the patient in question.
Under Oregon law, the PDMP is prohibited from disclosing information to a law enforcement agency without a court order. Administrative subpoenas are subpoenas issued by a governmental agency that are not approved by a judge. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t a legal document; rather, it simply means the subpoena is not court ordered.
The DEA argued that under the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution (which states that state constitutions and laws are subordinate to the federal Constitution and federal laws), the PDMP was required to release the specifically requested protected health information, regardless of Oregon law. The court held that the PDMP must release the information in question to the DEA, and the PDMP obliged in that instance.
On receiving further administrative subpoenas, the PDMP maintained its position that Oregon State law prevented it from complying with the DEA’s subpoenas and opened a case against the DEA. The court concluded that the DEA’s use of administrative subpoenas to obtain prescription information from the PDMP violated the Fourth Amendment (which protects citizens from unlawful searches and seizures) because the information in question was highly personal and there was a reasonable expectation on the part of the patients that their information would be held in confidence.
Two months after the court’s ruling, the DEA appealed. The case was heard in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Court of Appeals ruled that the DEA could legally issue administrative subpoenas to the PDMP. However, the court did note that the PDMP could refuse to oblige with the subpoena, at which point judicial intervention would again be necessary.
While it is unfortunate the court did not prohibit the issuance of administrative subpoenas for medical information, Compassion & Choices is relieved that the court stated PDMP can refuse to comply, and the subpoenas can be fought in further judicial proceedings.