TALLAHASSEE — Florida's prescription drug monitoring database is headed for a showdown, with a House committee voting Thursday to kill the planned program that has vigorous support from state senators.
"That database only tracks the problem, it doesn't solve it," said Robert Schenck, a Republican from Spring Hill who chairs the House Health and Human Services Committee.
The database was supposed to be up and running by December, but bid protests delayed its launch. An administrative judge this week resolved the dispute, and the maker of OxyContin offered to donate $1 million over the next two years to pay for the program, which has no state funding.
Schenck dismissed that offer from Purdue Pharma, saying it's like the "fox guarding the henhouse."
Killing the database before it starts is a top priority of Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon and Gov. Rick Scott, who say the database would be an invasion of privacy and won't help solve the state's prescription drug abuse epidemic.
The Legislature voted to create the program two years ago as part of an attempt to crack down on storefront pain clinics that hand out huge quantities of such prescription drugs as OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax, and have made Florida a destination for drug dealers and abusers from other states. Laws also were passed that required registration and inspections of pain clinics, and prevented felons from operating the clinics.
But Schenck's committee approved a bill repealing the database as well as a second bill that would repeal the pain clinic regulations, track wholesalers and allow only pharmacies to dispense pain medications.
That means doctors could no longer dispense the drugs.
Schenck said his bill would "cut the head off the snake" of drug abuse.
"I truly believe we need an approach that stops the supply, not tracks the problem," Schenck said. "This stops the supply before another addict is created."
Monitoring wholesalers, Schenck said, provides "a much better picture of where these narcotics are being distributed and given out in an abusive way."
It would also allow law enforcement officials to identify unusually large purchases. The bill calls for appropriating $1.5 million to pinpoint the large, nonpharmacy dispensaries and return the drugs to wholesalers.
Opponents of the bill argued that many legitimate doctors dispense pain medications, and if the law passes it would hurt their businesses, as well as patients.
A recent study by Nova Southeastern University concluded dispensing practitioners account for only 16 percent of the oxycodone distributed in Florida.
"The primary source is not dispensing physicians," said Claude Shipley, who worked in the state's now-defunct Office of Drug Control.
The proposed laws would not stop doctor-shopping and the use of stolen or fraudulent prescription pads, he said. And, he said, clinic owners can always open pharmacies or partner with businesses allowed to dispense the drugs.
"This is not a silver bullet. You are not going to cut the head of the snake off. You've got a multiheaded hydra," Shipley said.
The pressure to support the bills deemed a priority by the powerful Republican House speaker was clear, with GOP panel members voting in support of them despite concerns.
Two doctors on the committee voiced strong reservations about the ban on physician dispensing before voting in favor of the bill.
Ronald Renuart, a Republican from Ponte Vedra Beach who is a physician, said there are rural areas with few pharmacies where it's easier for patients to get medications from their doctors, and noted bad clinics have been closed thanks to existing laws.
"We need to continue to register and inspect these clinics," Renuart said before voting in favor of the measure. "That's wrong to have that taken this out of this bill."
Paige Kreegel, a Republican from Punta Gorda, also a physician, called the ban "an intrusion into the medical practice."
"This bill is far from perfect and it needs a lot of work," he said. "But I think it is a start."
Votes on both bills were split largely along party lines, with all the Republicans voting in favor of them. Mack Bernard from West Palm Beach was the only Democrat to vote with the Republicans on the committee.
Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican from New Port Richey who has fought hard against pill mills, criticized the House committee's actions.
"I am extremely disappointed that members of my own party voted for legislation that will allow felons to once again own pain clinics, that deregulates pill mills and removes the requirement that pain clinics be licensed and inspected," Fasano said in a statement.
Schenck said pain clinic regulations won't be necessary if they can't dispense medications. But he acknowledged his proposal may have some flaws.
"It is our intent to take a holistic approach to this epidemic," Schenck said. "If there are loopholes, it is my full intention to try to close those."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.