TAMPA — After initially fighting one of its key provisions, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill Friday aimed at cracking down on clinics that frivolously dispense pain pills and feed a nationwide prescription drug abuse epidemic.
"Florida will shed its title as the Oxy Express," Scott said at a bill signing ceremony in Tampa, ending what had been a hard-fought political battle over how to stop a crisis that kills an estimated seven Floridians daily.
When she took in office this year, Attorney General Pam Bondi made tackling prescription drug abuse her top priority, lobbying legislators for more tools to pursue pill mill operators.
But the House and Senate began the legislative session with divergent views on how to fix the problem.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, and Senate President Mike Haridopolos were staunch advocates of a prescription drug monitoring database.
Scott and House leaders wanted to eliminate it, raising concerns about privacy as well as the effectiveness of the program.
Scott launched his own law enforcement "strike force," and Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, pushed a bill targeting doctors and drug distributors.
The final product includes Bondi's priorities, as well as elements of the House bill and Fasano's database.
"The governor has made a huge turnaround," Fasano said. "The governor today signed a bill that not only preserves the prescription drug monitoring database. It makes it better."
The law strengthens reporting requirements to the database. It also increases penalties for overprescribing oxycodone and other narcotics, tracks wholesale distribution of some controlled substances, and provides $3 million to support law enforcement efforts and state prosecutors.
It also bans most doctors who prescribe narcotics from dispensing them, requiring prescriptions to be filled at certain types of pharmacies.
Scott has been under pressure from elected officials throughout the country to do something about the proliferation of so-called "pill mills" in Florida that attract people from other states seeking easy access to highly addictive, powerful painkillers.
"The toll our nation's prescription drug abuse epidemic has taken in communities nationwide is devastating and Florida is ground zero," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, after Scott signed the bill.
While testifying before a congressional committee with Kentucky Gov. Steve Bershear in April, Scott pledged to address the problem and give up his push to kill Florida's prescription drug monitoring database, a top priority for Kerlikowske's nationwide prescription drug battle.
Bershear applauded Scott and the Florida Legislature on Friday.
"The signing of this bill will undoubtedly save lives — not just in Florida, but in points north, including my home state of Kentucky," he said. "This comprehensive bill is another good step in our cooperative efforts to protect our families from the scourge of prescription drug abuse. I thank Gov. Scott for signing this important bill."
Scott drew maximum attention to his signing of a law that won unanimous support in both the House and Senate, staging ceremonies in Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and Orlando.
Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee introduced Scott at the Tampa bill-signing event.
Thirty percent of all suspects booked in the county jail each day suffer from opiate withdrawal, Gee said. The physical effects of withdrawal burden jail health services and endanger deputies, he said.
"We have people who act out," he said. "When you're in withdrawal, you're very difficult to deal with. Can be violent."
In a later interview, Gee said he told the governor investment in drug treatment programs is a logical next step in battling the pill mill epidemic.
But Gee was thankful for the legislation, which he said will help law enforcement. Hillsborough undercover detectives have witnessed pills bought in Florida for $5 that were being flipped for $30 out of state, Gee said.
Scott began his comments by highlighting the strike force he assembled with Bondi, which he said has made 350 arrests since March.
"Not a day goes by that I don't hear a story of someone who has lost a family member or friend to prescription drug abuse," Bondi said in a prepared statement. "This legislation will make significant strides in ridding Florida of unscrupulous doctors and pill mills."
Also on hand for the Tampa ceremony: Lisa Meshad, the Sarasota mother of Brandi Meshad, 18, who died in March from a suspected oxycodone overdose.
Scott worked with Brandi's father, Gavin Meshad, in Nashville when he was CEO of Columbia/HCA. Scott met Brandi when she was about 5.
After her death, Brandi's parents traveled to Tallahassee to lobby on behalf of the monitoring program.
Gavin Meshad spoke privately with the governor, and Lisa Meshad with Bondi. "We begged," Lisa Meshad said. "It's a tsunami hitting our state."
Times/Herald staff writer Katie Sanders contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at [email protected].com or (850) 224-7263.