Facing a rash of prescription drug overdose deaths, Pinellas County gave its moratorium on new pain management clinics another two years — and more teeth — Tuesday night.
The County Commission voted unanimously for the extension of the moratorium it imposed in May.
"As it was implemented, we realized there were other things that needed to be done," said County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who spearheaded efforts. "These are criminals, crooks."
County officials and law enforcement authorities have tried to clamp down on "pill mills" that deliver thousands of drugs to abusers and dealers each week.
Last year 681 people in Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties died from prescription drug overdoses, authorities said.
Extending the moratorium will allow a task force chaired by Latvala more time to explore solutions, particularly with a state tracking system being delayed until next year. Hillsborough and Pasco imposed similar moratoriums.
The proposed ordinance adds tougher requirements to operate clinics, including barring them from employing anyone convicted of a drug-related felony in the past five years.
The clinics also would have to provide a floor plan showing where prescription drugs are stored and pay a $250 registration fee and $2,750 fee for a permit for each location.
Fearing overburdening legitimate businesses, Commissioners Nancy Bostock and Neil Brickfield sought a one-year moratorium that could be renewed. The five other members balked.
"I would rather step on some toes, with the problem getting bad as it is, than to stand back and say, 'Oh, well, the problem will take care of itself,' " said Rosemarie LaCourse, 61, a Largo resident who supported the extension.
After hearing tearful testimony from relatives of people who abused prescription pills, the commission approved the initial moratorium in May. After the moratorium took effect, 42 locations registered with the county, eight had to close and 14 businesses were told they couldn't operate as pain clinics anymore. Two have received citations.
But county officials acknowledge operators are finding new ways to use loopholes.
"There's a lot of wack-a-mole," said Tim Burns, the county's director of justice and consumer services. "But there's no one solution to this."
Dr. Lynne Columbus, a pain management physician, said recent state and local efforts haven't affected the number of patients she sees. But she did shut down a Largo office in May because of fears of doctor-shopping addicts bothering legitimate patients.
"It's all about supply and demand," said Columbus, who works at the Morton Plant Mease Outpatient Center in East Lake.
Columbus said she's unsure how much good the tougher restrictions will do. She said she fears that legitimate pain doctors will be hurt while wrongdoers find ways around fees and limits.
"These people have more money than God," said Columbus, who writes prescriptions but does not dispense pills.
Pinellas' requirements come as the state also is toughening restrictions.
Pain clinics have been required to register with the Florida Department of Health since January and must be inspected annually. Starting Friday, clinics must be owned by doctors licensed to practice in Florida. They soon will have to follow clinical guidelines by state medical boards.
But a statewide system to monitor drug prescriptions has been delayed and isn't expected to be running until early next year. And doctors are not required to check it.
A recent St. Petersburg Times investigation found that the system for shutting down doctors suspected of operating pill mills has been plagued with long delays, light penalties and testy finger-pointing among regulators, law enforcement and lawmakers over who should be doing what.
David DeCamp can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8779.