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Opposition to prescription drug monitoring program could be softening

Gov. Rick Scott continues to express doubts about Florida's prescription drug monitoring program. But there are new signs that opposition is softening to the electronic database, aimed at stemming the state's deadly trade in addictive painkillers.

• The Legislature's top supporter and opponent of the program are meeting today to hash out their differences.

• The new head of the Department of Health said Tuesday that he will implement the database, if the 2009 law creating it stands, as expected.

• And members of Scott's tea party political base say they're not opposing the program.

On Tuesday, the governor expressed concern about the epidemic that kills an average of seven Floridians a day.

"Look, the pill mill issue is a major issue in our state. And we are losing people every day. So we've got to come up with a plan that's going to solve this issue," he said.

But he repeated his fears about patient confidentiality being breached if anyone were to hack into the database, which aims to thwart "doctor shopping" by people who go from doctor to doctor, and pharmacy to pharmacy, filling duplicative prescriptions for powerful medications.

"With regard to the database, I am very uncomfortable where we are now because of privacy," Scott said.

Last week, tea party members gave state legislators a list of 11 issues that matter most to the organization. But the database didn't rate.

"The tea party is focused on the tsunami of government debt, not the prescription drug program, which we understand is to be privately funded," said Karen Jaroch, chairwoman of the 912 Project in Tampa, a tea party affiliate. "We have people for the program and against it, so we're not taking a united stand on it."

Thirty-four states already have such databases, and none have reported breaches of patient confidentiality. Still, that's a frequently voiced objection.

"Like the governor, some of us have privacy concerns about the database, but opposing it doesn't rise to the top of what we want to take on as a group," said Sharon Calvert, chairwoman of the Tampa Tea Party.

Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, has been adamantly opposed to the electronic data base. But Schenck will meet today with the lead supporter of the database, Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

"Rep. Schenck and Sen. Fasano will hash it out and come up with the best solution. They both have the same goal of stopping deaths from abuse of prescription drugs," said Schenck's spokesman, Ryan Anderson.

Fasano said he "would not compromise on repeal of the database," but is open to compromise on his new legislation calling for the state to eventually pay for the database, rather than relying on private support as the 2009 law requires. Fasano also said he supports certain parts of Schenck's bill, which would monitor drug wholesalers and limit doctors' abilities to sell pain pills directly out of their offices.

Funds already have been raised for the program, and Purdue Pharma, which makes the pain pill OxyContin, just donated $1 million. Last week, a company vice president said Purdue is "open to a conversation about long-term funding."

"A database is particularly important in Florida, not only for the state itself but because people from other states like Ohio, New York and Kentucky go there to abuse drugs," said Purdue's Alan Must.

But supporters of the monitoring program fear that even if the law is not repealed, Scott's lack of support could still doom it. That's because he supervises the state Department of Health, which would administer the program.

"If he is prepared to be outright manipulative with the Health Department, he could severely hamper the prescription monitoring program," said Dan Gelber, a former Democratic leader in the state Senate.

"He could fire anyone at Health who tries to implement the database or find other ways to stall the contract," said Gelber.

But the new chief of the Health Department said such fears are unfounded. Dr. Frank Farmer, an Ormond Beach internist and former head of the Florida Medical Association, was appointed by Scott on Tuesday to lead the department.

"If the Legislature keeps (the monitoring program) on the books in its infinite wisdom, I'll support the law that makes it a tool," Farmer said.

Times staff writers Janet Zink and Katie Sanders and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at mlaughlin@sptimes.com.

Opposition to prescription drug monitoring program could be softening 03/22/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 22, 2011 10:56pm]

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