TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott wants to stop the state's prescription drug monitoring program before it starts.
He's calling for the Legislature to repeal a 2009 law mandating the database that proponents say would go a long way toward curbing the state's prescription drug abuse epidemic.
Scott's repeal is buried in more than 800 pages of legislation released Monday as part of his budget package slashing $4.6 billion from Florida's bottom line, even though the program relies on no state funding.
The move prompted harsh criticism from those on the front lines of the war on prescription drug abuse.
"This is a step in the wrong direction," said Capt. Robert Alfonso, head of the narcotics division of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. "We were looking forward to using it."
Alfonso said he understands the budget challenges, but wondered why something like this would be on the chopping block.
Prescription drugs are linked to seven deaths daily in Florida.
"It makes no logical or rational sense," said Paul Sloan, a Venice-based pain clinic owner and president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers. "It's absolutely absurd. This is the most important weapon in the fight against prescription drug abuse. . . . This is not a budget issue. This does not involve state money, never did, and there's no reason for him to repeal it."
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has been a champion of efforts to fight prescription drug abuse and sponsored the drug monitoring legislation, rapped the governor for sliding his proposal into his mass of budget recommendations.
"I'm extremely, extremely disappointed with the governor and his administration for sneaking this into a . . . bill," Fasano said. "It's something that he should have talked about, should have explained, not just thrown in."
When asked directly, Scott offered little explanation.
"That program has not been working," Scott said, adding that he's working with Attorney General Pam Bondi on addressing the so-called "pill mill" issue.
Brian Hughes, a spokesman for Scott, elaborated, saying database backers have struggled to win funding and faced problems finding a vendor. Plus, he said, it raises issues of privacy.
"This would create an all-encompassing database of largely law-abiding citizens and medical professionals in order to get to some criminal element," Hughes said. "It certainly seems like it has the potential for a massive violation of privacy if the government is keeping a database of what prescriptions people are taking and who wrote them."
Hughes said the governor would prefer to focus on policies that go after the people who exploit the system and threaten public safety, especially when state resources are so limited.
The drug monitoring program, which was supposed to launch Dec. 1, 2010, has been stymied by numerous delays, including two bid protests filed by a company not selected to set up the system.
Scott dealt the monitoring program a blow last month when he eliminated the Office of Drug Control, created by Gov. Jeb Bush. The office had worked with the state Department of Health to get the database going.
Gov. Charlie Crist signed the bill to create the database in the summer of 2009. The bill passed after several failed attempts, mainly because it didn't put the state on the hook to pay for it.
Instead, it directed the Office of Drug Control and the Department of Health to raise money for the system. Through a foundation and grants, enough was raised to start the database and keep it running for a year. Estimates are it would cost about $500,000 annually to maintain.
It would require pharmacists and doctors to report information on anyone who has a prescription filled for such drugs as oxycodone, amphetamines, Vicodin and Xanax. Pharmacists and doctors would be able to check the database to see if the patient asking for pain pills recently got a month's worth down the street.
Florida is one of just a handful of states without a prescription drug monitoring system. Florida's law has also been criticized for a number of loopholes.
One is a 15-day window for doctors to enter information into the system, which law officers say is plenty of time for doctor shoppers to obtain large quantities of drugs before their actions can be detected. The second loophole is that doctors aren't required to check the database before prescribing or dispensing drugs.
Last week, Bondi unveiled a multipronged approach to fight the prescription drug abuse problem. Her response to Scott's move was measured.
"My legislative priorities to stop pill mills in Florida are focused on increased criminal penalties for pill mills and civil penalties for doctors that do not adhere to the standard of care and overprescribe," she said in an e-mail. "If properly implemented, the drug monitoring program could be an important additional tool to address prescription drug abuse."
Fasano recently filed a bill incorporating many of Bondi's recommendations and also eliminating a requirement that the monitoring database receive no state funding.
Dave Aronberg, a former state senator appointed by Bondi to focus on the pill mill problem, said he expects continued debate about the database, including its lack of state funding.
"It comes up every year. This is the beginning rather than the end of the discussion," he said.
Cindy Harney, a Sarasota mother who lost her 20-year-old son to a prescription drug overdose in 2006, lobbied Florida legislators to get the drug monitoring law in place.
This week she was in Washington, D.C., lobbying lawmakers for a national prescription drug monitoring system when she heard that Scott was pushing to repeal Florida's.
"It knocked me to my knees," said Harney, a founder of Families Against Addictive Drug Abuse. "All these years of hard work and he comes in and I'm still not sure what his reasoning is. It's appalling that we're not doing anything."
She said a prescription drug monitoring system might have helped keep OxyContin and Xanax out of the hands of her son, who first tried prescription drugs when a friend offered him his mother's pills. Later, he figured out how to get them on the street and at pain clinics.
"His last words to me were 'Mom, I can't be helped,' " Harney said.
Times staff writers Letitia Stein, Leonora LaPeter and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report.