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State agency says data migration prevents it from releasing overdose data to the public
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State agency says data migration prevents it from releasing overdose data to the public

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Michael McDermott has been clean from using drugs or alcohol for nearly 30 years, and he’s spent much of that time as an advocate for those like him in recovery.

He shares helpful information on the website of FAVOR — Faces and Voices of Recovery of Virginia (favorva.org).

On his website is a chart he made showing monthly EMS response data for overdoses in Virginia by jurisdiction from January 2017 to November 2020.

He got the Microsoft Excel data three separate times from the state’s Office of Emergency Medical Services, part of the Virginia Department of Health. And the trends showed overdoses going up between 2017 and 2020 — evidence, McDermott says, that what the state’s doing to combat substance abuse isn’t working.

But McDermott said he hasn’t been able to get the same data this year.

He said he spent months going back and forth on the phone and email with the Office of Emergency Medical Services, where the associate director eventually told him they’d get him the 2021 data by Sept. 30.

When that date passed, McDermott was so frustrated that he filed a petition in court in Goochland County, where he lives, asking a judge to order the agency to turn over the data under the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

At a hearing Monday in Goochland General District Court, a judge found that the agency didn’t need to turn it over because an ongoing data migration was hindering the agency’s ability to provide it.

McDermott was disappointed.

“This data can save lives, Your Honor,” he told Judge Claiborne H. Stokes Jr., adding, “This data is important to point out ways we can do a better job in the community against this epidemic of addiction.”

Gary Brown, director of the state Office of Emergency Medical Services, and Adam Harrell, the associate director, spent two hours in court last Monday during a convoluted hearing in which McDermott represented himself.

In an interview for this story, McDermott said he began asking for 2021 overdose data around April or May. He provided emails to the Richmond Times-Dispatch showing he was punted around. In May, he corresponded with people at a company working with the state. In June, he emailed Carlos Rivero, the commonwealth’s chief data officer, about the data he was trying to obtain that he had previously obtained.

McDermott was referred to a state health official and emailed her in early September, copying other officials. She replied: “OEMS is working to rapidly restore access to our historical data so that data queries can be performed.” She referred him to Harrell, the associate office director.

In court, the state officials argued through their counsel, Assistant Attorney General Krista Mathis Samuels, that the data they have is exempt from FOIA because it’s attached to confidential patient information. McDermott questioned why they couldn’t separate the information as they had previously.

The assistant attorney general acknowledged that the office never gave McDermott a written response citing a FOIA exemption, which is required by law when a government agency declines to turn over exempt records. The judge did not issue any ruling on that.

The judge asked why McDermott was able to get the data previously. “That was prior to the migration,” said Samuels, the state’s lawyer. She also said the state officials previously provided McDermott the data as a “courtesy” but consider the overdose data confidential until it’s “processed.” She said the agency isn’t required to process the data but does it as a public service.

“They are setting up a system where he can get the data. ... It’s just going to take time,” she said.

That could be after the first of the year, according to the office.

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