- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 30, 2009

RICHMOND | Some doctors are holding off prescribing painkillers after a hacker accessed more than 35.5 million of Virginia’s most-sensitive prescription drug records two months ago, a state official told a legislative panel Monday.

Lawmakers probing the state’s computer services bureaucracy, the Virginia Information Technologies Agency (VITA), also learned that its former director was dismissed earlier this month after refusing to pay VITA’s contracted partner, which had missed key deadlines.

Hearings Monday by the House Science and Technology Committee and a Senate Finance technology subcommittee focused on VITA and its 10-year, $2.4 billion contract with Northrop Grumman after years worth of state agencies’ complaints over high costs and long service delays they have experienced from the partnership.

Lawmakers intensified their scrutiny of the six-year-old agency created to consolidate the state’s diverse and far-flung computer systems after the Prescription Monitoring Program was hacked on April 30 and after the dismissal of former VITA chief Lemuel Stewart.

With the prescription database still offline two months after it was accessed because of FBI and state criminal investigations and work to upgrade the system, some doctors are reluctant to prescribe highly addictive painkillers such as Oxycodone, Vicodin, morphine and Valium, said Sandra Whitley Ryals, director of the Department of Health Professions.

“I do not have any indication, however, of how many that might be,” she told the panel. Later, she said the department has received no complaints from patients being denied needed drugs.

“I do know that our prescribers, mostly physicians, have grave concerns about not being able to access the information,” she said.

The database was established for professionals who prescribe painkillers, the pharmacists who fill the prescriptions and police to flag abuse and theft. Among the information accessed were names, birth dates and addresses of people who received the prescriptions and, in an undetermined number of cases, Social Security numbers.

The Department of Health Professions mailed notices to 530,000 people, telling them that their information may have been stolen and urging them to check their credit scores, bank accounts, credit cards and other vulnerable assets.

In both the House and the Senate, lawmakers zeroed in on VITA’s contract with Northrop Grumman, a major government contractor that also owns the huge military shipbuilding complex in Newport News.

Already, the partnership has missed major deadlines. Because of that, the corporation can’t precisely tell the state how much service it is providing, said Ashley Colvin of the General Assembly’s investigative arm, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission.

“We don’t know whether the costs of Northrop Grumman services are higher, and we also don’t know whether or not they would have been lower. So we’re making 12 equal monthly payments to Northrop Grumman of about $14 million,” she told the House panel.

Earlier this month, after Mr. Stewart balked at paying one of the monthly bills, he was dismissed as the state’s chief information officer, or VITA’s overseer, said Technology Secretary Leonard Pomata, who was appointed his interim successor.

“I had no problem in holding the bill, but the way I do that is tell you you have 30 days to remedy this. I’ll give some notice and allow some discussion, but if you don’t remedy it in 30 days, I’m going to hold up the whole bill,” Mr. Pomata said.

In a written statement, Northrop Grumman said some agencies “have encountered challenges” and it had increased staff working with VITA on a “complex and unprecedented undertaking.”

“We are modernizing outdated and inefficient technology, and we are working with VITA and the agencies to address obstacles to progress,” the corporate statement said.

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