With prescription drug abuse — and deaths — making headlines all over the state, the public outcry for action is louder than ever.
But officials in charge of Florida's new prescription drug monitoring law say one thing has prevented them from cracking down on the problem sooner:
The law, signed by Gov. Charlie Crist last year, did not include the $1 million officials estimated it would take to get the monitoring program started. In fact, the law specifically said no state dollars would be used. As of Friday, just over half that amount has been secured from federal grants and private sources.
And though state officials are confident they will get the program off the ground by the Dec. 1 deadline set in the law, some wonder how much more quickly it could have started — and how many lives could have been saved — had money not been an issue.
"I think it could have been launched sooner if funding was secure, without a doubt," said Bruce Grant, director of the Governor's Office of Drug Control, which with the state Department of Health is in charge of the program.
Florida is the largest of about a dozen states that do not have a prescription drug monitoring system in place. When it launches, the new law will:
• Require pharmacists and doctors to enter information about drugs dispensed to patients into a statewide database within 15 days. Failure to do so will be a first-degree misdemeanor.
• Allow doctors to use the database to find out the type and quantity of drugs a patient has obtained, and when.
• Require pain-management clinics to register with the state and be inspected annually by the state Health Department. To date, more than 1,000 have registered, said Diane Orcutt, who oversees the drug monitoring program for the department.
Though Crist signed the bill last summer, state officials were given about 18 months to get it started. Much of the work so far has focused on fundraising.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, said that after several years of trying to get a drug monitoring plan passed, the only way to get it approved was to remove state funding.
"If we had our full say, we would have funded it immediately," Fasano said.
Orcutt said much work still needs to be done. Her office will soon request bids from vendors to supply the computer system that will run the database. She expects to hear from companies that have set up similar systems in the more than 30 states that have drug monitoring programs. Pharmacists and doctors also must be trained to use the system.
"We're on a tight time line, trying to make the Dec. 1 date," she said.
For many, December can't come soon enough. On Thursday, federal agents and Tampa police raided a pain management clinic, arresting four people. On Wednesday, 200 parents and students gathered at Palm Harbor University High School, where they vowed to take action in memory of two students who they believe died from pain pill overdoses.
And last month, the state suspended the license of a Largo doctor after an investigation found that she prescribed nearly 95,000 tablets and other forms of controlled substances to five patients over a 21/2 year period.
"We have heard from many people who are anxious to get this up and running, from doctors to pharmacists, to moms and dads who have lost their children because of prescription drug abuse," Fasano said.
Some couldn't wait any longer. This past month, the Pinellas County and Hillsborough County commissions followed the lead of several South Florida counties and passed moratoriums on new pain management clinics. On Thursday, the Tampa City Council authorized police to inspect pain clinics whenever they want.
"I don't understand why it's taken so long," Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala said Friday of the state's efforts to pass a law. "How many lives could have been saved?"
Officials, however, acknowledge that the new law isn't ideal. Pharmacists will have 15 days to enter prescriptions into the database, which will still give abusers time to obtain pills from different doctors. Fasano said the nearly two-week window was something pharmacists wanted, but he hopes to shorten that period.
And there's still the issue of money. Even if officials raise the $1 million to set up the program, Grant estimates it will cost between $400,000 and $500,000 a year to keep it running.
"Whenever you don't have a steady stream of funding from the state or (federal) government, there is a worry that there isn't going to be enough," Grant said.
Despite the new program's problems, law enforcement officials say they welcome any help fighting the growing epidemic.
"It will make our jobs a little easier," said Capt. Robert Alfonso, who heads the narcotics division of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office.
Richard Martin can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8330.