TALLAHASSEE — A deal struck in the early-morning hours of the session's final day saved lawmakers from the embarrassment of failing to pass legislation aimed at cracking down on pill mills that have earned Florida the nickname "OxyContin Express."
Attorney General Pam Bondi made tackling the prescription drug abuse epidemic her top priority. She said she spoke at 2 a.m. to House Speaker Dean Cannon to push him toward a compromise on the legislation. She also made a personal appeal to Senate President Mike Haridopolos to drop a controversial exemption for workers compensation doctors to a proposed narcotics dispensing ban.
As a final vote approached around 8 p.m. Friday, Bondi and Gov. Rick Scott joined Cannon on the dais in the House chamber to watch as representatives voted unanimously in favor of the bill. The room burst into applause, repeating a scene from hours earlier when the Senate also approved the legislation unanimously with Bondi in the chamber.
"Today I think you saw what is the best of the best of Tallahassee," Cannon said after the House vote. "Which is the governor, the attorney general, the Senate and House, each with a different viewpoint, coming together in a bipartisan fashion to solve a problem that really, really is killing our children and our adults."
The final bill, after months of negotiations that ran down to the wire, is better than what any of them could have done on their own, he said.
"I want us just to savor this moment," he said.
Earlier in the day, Haridopolos said his wife, a general practice physician, urged him to make every effort possible to resolve differences with the House so legislation could move forward this year.
"We were worried last night we might not line up," he said. "We eventually found compromise."
The end product tightens reporting requirements to a prescription drug monitoring database, includes a dispensing ban for most doctors and moves toward a monthly dosage cap on dispensing for pharmacies. It also includes measures requested by Bondi to increase penalties for doctors who overprescribe narcotics.
After the Senate passed the bill, Bondi sent this message to operators of pill mills in Florida: "These guys better get ready to get out of the state."
Florida has been under pressure from elected officials throughout the country to rein in the clinics that lure people seeking easy access to powerful painkillers. Estimates are that prescription drugs kill seven people every day in Florida.
Gov. Rick Scott testified last month before a congressional committee and pledged to take steps to address the problem.
"We need this bill," he said Friday. "We need to change the direction of this state with regard to pill mills."
During discussion in the Senate, praise was heaped on Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, one of the most vocal champions of fighting prescription drug abuse.
"As you look back at your distinguished career in this Legislature, the real tribute, the real reward, the real take-home bill for you will be in the eyes and faces of those children and adults whose lives you have saved because of this bill," said Sen. Don Gaetz, R-Niceville.
Fasano called pill mill operators "nothing more than drug traffickers" who run clinics that accept only cash, accept no insurance, make no appointments, conduct no physical exams, are protected by armed guards and write prescriptions that far exceed the boundaries of proper medical care.
"I will bet everyone in this room today has been affected in some way, because you know someone, a relative, a friend, a neighbor, someone in your church, your business, who has been affected by this epidemic," Fasano said.
The House and Senate started the session with vastly different ideas on how to approach the problem.
A bill managed by Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hall, originally called for eliminating the state's not-yet-launched prescription drug monitoring database that many say is a critical tool for combating the crisis.
House leaders and Scott questioned the effectiveness of the database and raised concerns about privacy. But the final legislation keeps the database in place.
The House also faced resistance to a plan to ban dispensing of narcotics by all physicians and small pharmacies, and to limit pharmacies to dispensing 5,000 dosages per month.
Community pharmacies said the ban would hurt their businesses, and the dosage limit raised concerns that people who legitimately need pain medication wouldn't be able to get it.
Ultimately, the House softened its stance on those positions.
As the debate over the bill raged this session, Scott unveiled a plan for a "strike force" coordinated by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to go after the pain clinics.
"We are at war with this prescription drug epidemic," Schenck said just before the House vote. "This bill today turns the tide. And with that we're going to win the war."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Michael C. Bender contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.