TALLAHASSEE — State senators drew battle lines over Florida's planned prescription drug monitoring database Monday, criticizing House leaders and Gov. Rick Scott for wanting to kill the program before it starts.
Attorney General Pam Bondi staked her ground with them, testifying before a Senate committee along with her drug czar, Dave Aronberg. The two urged senators to continue their fight to preserve the database.
"It's such a horrible, horrible problem in our state. We have become the destination for drug dealers," Bondi told the committee. "We've got to have a comprehensive strategy."
That strategy, she said, should include the drug database. "Drug dealers are flying to Florida now to buy these drugs and take them back to other states."
Many see the program as an important tool for combating the state's prescription drug abuse epidemic, which kills seven people a day.
"It's kind of incredible to me, there are others in positions of leadership in this building who do not share our concern with the severity of this problem and some of the potential solutions," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg.
Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Sarasota, shared similar surprise that the program is facing resistance. "I can't believe we've had as many problems getting this through as we've had," he said.
The comments came at a Senate Health Regulation committee meeting where the panel unanimously approved a bill by Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, that would preserve the database. It includes changes sought by Bondi to help prosecute and punish people who overprescribe pain medications.
The Legislature authorized the database in 2009, and it was supposed to launch in December 2010. Disputes between vendors seeking to run the program delayed its start, but those were resolved last week.
There is no state financial support, but federal grants and private fundraising efforts have generated enough money to run the database for about two years. And Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, offered to pay $1 million to fund the program.
But the database has come under fire from Scott and House leaders.
A bill moving through the House at the behest of Speaker Dean Cannon would eliminate the database. Rep. Robert Schenck, chairman of the committee that sponsored the bill, argues that the database merely tracks the problem and doesn't stop it. The House bill would instead require tracking drug wholesalers to identify unusually large distributions of narcotics. It also prohibits doctors from dispensing those medications, leaving that to pharmacists.
Scott has said he worries the database could be an invasion of privacy. He also has said he doesn't want Florida taxpayers to end up on the hook for a program that was established with the promise that it would never be supported by state money.
Florida law prohibits using state taxpayer money for the database. Fasano's bill would remove that ban, but he said that provision is negotiable.
"If the governor has heartburn with it, I'd be more than willing to pull it out if he will support implementation of the prescription drug monitoring program," Fasano said. "I've never wanted state dollars to be used if we're capable and able to raise the money through the private sector and grants from the federal government."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.