AUGUSTA, Maine — Customers filling prescriptions for painkillers and some other drugs would have to show photo identification at the pharmacy counter under proposed legislation.

Representatives of Maine doctors and pharmacies testified in favor of the bill at a public hearing Tuesday, while others raised concerns about patient privacy and safety.

LD 1829 would require pharmacists to check photo IDs before filling customers’ prescriptions for controlled substances. Those drugs include OxyContin, Ritalin, Vicodin and benzodiazepines, which are used to treat insomnia, anxiety and muscle spasms.

The legislation is aimed at curbing what Maine Attorney General William Schneider has described as an epidemic rate of prescription drug abuse in Maine. In 2009, 169 deaths in the state were attributed to drug overdoses, nearly all involving prescription drugs, usually methadone, oxycodone or some blend of both.

Maine law already allows, but does not require, pharmacists to check photo IDs of customers filling prescriptions. The law also applies to anyone buying over-the-counter cold remedies that can be used to manufacture methampethamine.

While LD 1829 has sparked privacy concerns, the intractable nature of prescription drug abuse in Maine warrants the “modest intrusion on individual privacy,” said Andrew MacLean of the Maine Medical Association.

“Gee, if it was important enough to be requiring photographic ID for Sudafed, then it probably is for controlled substances,” he told members of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

MacLean also spoke for a working group tasked with reviewing the state’s efforts to cut down on prescription drug abuse.

The photo ID requirement would additionally apply to anyone picking up a prescription for a controlled substance on someone else’s behalf.

MacLean and a representative of the Maine Merchants Association, which counts community pharmacies among its members, said they would support amending the bill to allow pharmacists to skip the ID checks for customers they know.

Hilary Schneider, a state director of government relations for the American Cancer Society, cautioned that requiring customers to present photo ID only for controlled substances, and not for other medications, could tip off dangerous criminals.

“This can lead to people being targeted by someone who may be casing the pharmacy looking for those older or frail individuals who have been asked to present an ID,” she said.

Cancer patients, the elderly and their families have been assaulted in pharmacy parking lots and even followed home by criminals hunting for prescription drugs, Schneider said.

Supporters of the bill argue it would deter crooks with fraudulent prescriptions from trying to get them filled. But Alysia Melnick of the ACLU of Maine said there’s no evidence that requiring photo IDs for prescription drugs stems abuse. It does, however, make it harder for patients to get the drugs they need, she said.

“While we understand that there’s a very serious problem in Maine, the focus on criminalizing and tracking people rather than looking at other proven methods of addressing the problem with drug addiction and diversion is part of what’s causing us grave concern,” Melnick said.

The Health and Human Services Committee will hold a work session on the bill Thursday.

Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and...