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So Much for Pill-Mill Policing: Citing Privacy, Florida Verges Away From Abusers’ Database

| February 9, 2011

Off their meds: an untitled painting by Richard Schreiner (Hollingsworth Gallery, Palm Coast). Click on the painting for larger view.

Likening it to “Big Brother,” a House health-committee chairman said Tuesday he will look at repealing a prescription-drug database that lawmakers approved in 2009 to try to curb deadly drug abuse.

House Health and Human Services Chairman Rob Schenck’s comments came a day after Gov. Rick Scott included such a repeal in his budget proposal. Speaker Dean Cannon has directed Schenck to lead a review of the state’s efforts to deal with prescription-drug abuse, including the database.

The matter is of immediate relevance in Flagler County, where Sheriff Don Fleming lobbied cities and the county pass ordinances imposing moratoriums on new pain clinics in the county. The moratoriums were predicated on giving the state enough time to roll out effective regulations following the 2009 law. That law’s repeal would effectively invalidate the moratoriums’ justification.

Schenck, a Spring Hill Republican, said he views the database as “just a big-government, big-brother alternative” and that his committee will look at other ways to address the drug problem.

“I would say at this point, I’m certainly open to (repealing the database),” Schenck said.

Some conservatives have long opposed the database because of concerns about privacy and government intrusion. But Scott’s proposed repeal alarmed database supporters, who argue it is the most-effective way to crack down on prescription-drug abuse and unscrupulous pill mills.

Dr. Raul Monzon, president of the Florida Academy of Pain Medicine, issued a statement Tuesday urging Scott to reconsider the repeal idea.

“A real-time (prescription-drug monitoring program) is the single most effective weapon in the battle to shut down Florida’s so-called ‘pill mills,’ which are contributing to the seven prescription drug overdose deaths that Florida’s medical examiners report occur daily in our state,” Monzon said in the statement.

Though approved in 2009, the database has still not started operating — at least in part because of ongoing bid disputes among vendors. It is designed to allow tracking of prescription drugs so that addicts will not be able to doctor-shop for narcotics.

Scott quietly included the repeal in a bill that goes along with his budget proposal. A spokeswoman said in an e-mail that Scott does not believe the database is “a function that is best performed by government.”

Another spokesman told the Associated Press that Scott also has concerns that the database would infringe on patients’ privacy.

“Is that a function of government to track the activities of law-abiding people in order to track a smaller subset of criminal behavior?” spokesman Brian Hughes told AP.

Neither Scott nor Schenck detailed alternative strategies for targeting prescription-drug abuse. But Attorney General Pam Bondi last week released a legislative proposal that would increase criminal penalties and fines for doctors and others who commit wrongdoing.

Bondi spokeswoman Jennifer Krell Davis said it is up to the Legislature to decide whether to continue moving forward with the database. She said the attorney general is focused on the other potential steps to address the problems.

It was not immediately clear Tuesday where Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, stand on a potential repeal. But Cannon spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an e-mail that he directed Schenck’s committee to undertake the review.

“The Speaker believes that we need to look at the body of policies that have been put in place to address prescription-drug abuse in an effort to assess their overall effectiveness,” Betta said.

Carol  Gentry, Health News Florida’s editor, filed this follow-up report on Feb. 10:

Cops, grieving parents and editorial boards say they’re appalled at Gov. Rick Scott’s idea of repealing the planned prescription drug monitoring system, aimed at catching drug-dealers who go “doctor-shopping” for narcotics.

Columnists, however, are having great fun at Scott’s expense.

Mike Thomas of The Orlando Sentinel writes: “I guess Gov. Rick Scott includes dope dealing as one of the Florida industries he hopes to stimulate.”

The database, which would allow doctors, pharmacists and law-enforcement to track those who get a prescription for addictive pain pills, might cut the death rate and thus harm funeral homes and florist shops, Thomas writes.

Killing the database, he writes, “will keep thousands of dealers happily employed, ranging from the sleazy docs who hand out the narcotics to the thugs who sell them on street corners.”

Fred Grimm at The Miami Herald writes that a Kentucky sheriff suspects that Florida just doesn’t want to cut off the flow of money from drug-dealers who supply the addicts in other states, including his.

They are, after all, tourists. “I guess their money’s getting pumped into the Florida economy,” the sheriff told Grimm.

The editorial boards of the state have taken a more sober view, calling Scott’s idea “ill-advised” (South Florida Sun-Sentinel) and “irresponsible” (Palm Beach Post).

A WTSP-TV report in Tampa interviewed a “disheartened” law-enforcement officer and a grieving mom, who said she just couldn’t believe Scott would kill the database.

“This is a huge epidemic that needs to be addressed,” Laurie Serra told the reporter. “People are dying, and we can’t wait!” 

WWSB in Sarasota reported that substance-abuse coalitions were “devastated, mortified and up in arms.”

A concerted effort today by Health News Florida staff to find some publication that supports Scott on this, in an effort to balance the opinion page, came up empty.

Public support for the repeal proposal so far has been limited to conservatives in the Legislature. As HNF reported this week, Rob Schenck, the chair of the House Health and Human Services committee, opposes the drug-monitoring program because he sees it as too intrusive — like “Big Brother.”

Press spokesmen for Scott have offered varying theories of why he included repeal of the drug database in materials accompanying his budget proposal. One suggested that it wasn’t needed because Attorney General Pam Bondi has other ways to solve the “pill-mill” crisis, another said the program might be recreated in a different form, and one cited the small-government theme.

“He does not believe this is a function that is best performed by government,” Amy Graham wrote HNF in answer to the “why?” question on Tuesday. She did not say who Scott thinks is best positioned to run the system and has not responded to requests for further information.

Most states operate some version of a prescription-drug monitoring program. Law-enforcement officials say that is why so many drug dealers and addicts  have flocked to Florida.

Even though the state obtained private grants to pay for the database build-out and operation in the first year, its creation has been held up by a bid dispute. A hearing officer took testimony on that this week but has not yet issued an opinion.

–Jim Saunders, Health News Florida

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1 Response for “So Much for Pill-Mill Policing: Citing Privacy, Florida Verges Away From Abusers’ Database”

  1. w.ryan says:

    This is a nice follow-up to previous Pill Mill article. I’m amazed at how the legalize and decision making goes. The Health Care Industry has been very abusive to the everyday Joe Blow and elderly here in the state of Florida when it comes to health care. Billing practices, unnecessary medical procedures, wrongful death and the peddling of medicine have been the norm for as long I’ve been in Florida. Our new Governor should know being that he was found guilty of defrauding the government of millions off of medicare. Now that it’s a problem of astounding bounds (national fingers point to the Sunshine State) they want to fix it. They should fix the Pill Mill problem. It’s about time. I’m worried about whom they tread on. They should also fix the other issues with medicine as well. It’s a cash cow so I know they won’t.

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