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DES MOINES — An Iowa Board of Pharmacy Examiners plan to establish a computer system that would track prescriptions for controlled substances came under fire Tuesday by state lawmakers and critics who said it would invade the privacy of Iowa patients.

The board wants Iowa to join about 20 other states that are tracking controlled substances in an effort to crack down on the abuse of prescription drugs such as painkillers.

But some lawmakers compared the government-run system with "big brother," saying it could put patients' sensitive medical information in the wrong hands.

Sen. Jack Hatch, D-Des Moines, said a record of the prescriptions Iowans take should not be in the hands of state government.

"Many citizens and legislators are rightfully concerned about protecting the confidentiality of their medical information and about the security of the proposed database itself," he said.

Now that the state is classifying the methamphetamine ingredient pseudoephedrine as a Schedule V controlled substance, purchases of cold and allergy medicine containing it also would be recorded by the proposed database.

Lloyd Jessen, the board's executive director, said they hope the have the database running by March 2007.

"We want to try to get the program implemented," he said.

He said it keeps prescription drug addicts from "doctor shopping" or "pharmacy shopping" by giving doctors and pharmacists access to the data when they are serving a patient.

The federal government has already awarded the pharmacy board a $642,000 grant to establish the database. But it never got the green light from the Iowa Legislature to do so, and the board's decision to move ahead anyway irked some lawmakers.

A measure to establish the database was approved by the Iowa House earlier this year. But the plan was never considered in the Iowa Senate after an intense lobbying effort against it by medical groups sank its chances during the 2005 legislative session.

Rep. George Eichhorn, R-Stratford, voted for the measure in the House. He said others supported the bill because they wanted to take action to fight methamphetamine abuse.

But Eichhorn complained Tuesday that the database would collect information on law-abiding Iowans to catch a few criminals.

"There's definitely some downsides, especially if you don't have the protections in there for confidentiality," he said.

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Eichhorn said a legislative committee will have the chance to put the database on hold until the full Iowa Legislature convenes in January. The Legislature could choose to nullify the board's action.

Groups representing Iowa doctors came forward Tuesday to register their opposition to the database plan.

Frank Severino, a lobbyist for the Iowa Osteopathic Medical Association and the Polk County Medical Society, said both groups are "extremely opposed" to the plan.

Marty Ryan of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union raised concerns that law enforcement officials would have access to the data even if they have not obtained a search warrant or subpoena from a judge.

He also pointed out that state computer systems at Iowa State University and the University of Iowa were the victims of hackers who were able to glean personal data that included credit card information and Social Security numbers.

"We have a lot of privacy concerns on this issue," he said.

Charlotte Eby can be contacted at                      (515) 243-0138 or chareby@aol.

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