TALLAHASSEE — Facing criticism for not supporting a database that many believe would help combat the state's prescription drug epidemic, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday launched his own initiative to fight the problem.
At a news conference where he was flanked by Attorney General Pam Bondi and a handful of law enforcement officers, Scott announced a statewide drug trafficking "strike force."
Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey will lead the effort, coordinating with local law enforcement agencies.
Scott directed the FDLE to use $800,000 in unspent federal grant money to help pay for overtime and other costs associated with the effort.
"I have consistently said that we must target the criminal source of this terrible problem in our state," Scott said. "Our locals can't tackle the issue alone. They need the assistance of a statewide coordinated effort that provides intelligence, analysis and investigative support."
Backers of the prescription drug monitoring database, though, immediately lobbed attacks on Scott's proposal.
"Arresting your way out of this isn't going to happen," said Paul Sloan, a Venice-based pain clinic owner and president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers.
Sloan stressed that the work of law enforcement is critical but not the solution needed.
"This is the governor's way of trying to show that he's tough on this issue without putting the PDMP into place, which is ludicrous," Sloan said.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, one of the strongest champions of the database, said he is glad the governor took steps to stop the illegal flow of prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax throughout the state.
"Early on he kind of brushed it off as almost not caring about it. That's the impression he gave," Fasano said. "I would challenge the governor, though, to ask every person he has on that strike force their opinion on whether the state should have a prescription drug monitoring program."
Fasano said he suspects they would all support it.
He said he also found it curious that the governor was able to come up with $800,000 for the law enforcement effort but not for the database.
In 2009, the Legislature and then-Gov. Charlie Crist established the program with plans to launch it in 2010, though the legislation included no funding.
Through federal grants and private donations to a foundation, there's enough money to get the database going — more than $1 million. And Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, has offered another $1 million to the state to run the program.
But bid disputes have kept it on hold, and last month Scott announced his plan to repeal the legislation because of funding issues and privacy concerns.
Scott said privacy remains his biggest worry.
Scott called the strike force "phase one" in a comprehensive plan taking aim at the state's so-called "pill mill" problem.
"It recognizes that law enforcement officers on the front line targeting criminals will be how we stop this problem," Scott said.
The "strike force" involves personnel in the Department of Health, Agency for Health Care Administration, Division of Business and Professional Regulation, Florida Highway Patrol and, with the blessing of chief financial officer Jeff Atwater, investigators in the office of insurance fraud.
In her remarks, Bondi, who supports the database, acknowledged that she and the governor have a difference of opinion. But she praised the governor for taking action on the law enforcement front.
"We need more tools for all these people standing behind us," she said.
Later, Bondi said she considers the database one of those "essential" tools.
The state House of Representatives, at the urging of Speaker Dean Cannon, has proposed eliminating the database. But Senate President Mike Haridopolos has said that proposal won't make it through his chamber. In fact, fellow Republican Sen. Rene Garcia got nowhere in a Senate committee Monday with a bill amendment that would have killed the database. The amendment was dropped without even being put up for a vote.
Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.