TALLAHASSEE — Despite continued objections from Gov. Rick Scott, a prescription drug monitoring database on hold since December is set to launch.
The Department of Health on Friday issued a final order in a months-long bid dispute between two vendors, giving the program a green light.
Killing the database before it started was a top priority of Scott and Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon, who say it would be an invasion of privacy and won't help solve the state's prescription drug abuse epidemic.
But with the program mandated by statute, there is little opponents can do to stop it now that the legal issues surrounding it have been resolved.
The news prompted cheers from those who see the database as a critical tool in the fight against the state's prescription drug epidemic.
"The database will provide 'shock and awe' in Florida's efforts to end the criminal abuse of legal prescription drugs," said Republican Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a consistent champion of the program.
Attorney General Pam Bondi, who has made combating prescription drug abuse a focus of her administration, praised the development.
"As part of a criminal investigation, the program will enable law enforcement to act more quickly in identifying and arresting pill mill operators," she said in a statement.
Scott had called for the Legislature to repeal the 2009 law requiring the database as part of a budget package he released in February that slashed $4.6 billion from Florida's bottom line, even though the program relied on no state funding.
Federal grants and private fundraising efforts — including $1 million from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin — have generated enough money to run the database for about two years.
"The governor still has concerns about patient privacy and that the database is not the silver bullet that proponents have claimed," said Scott spokesman Brian Hughes. "He's focused on law enforcement solutions to this criminal problem."
Late last month, Scott launched a statewide "strike force" headed by Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey, directing the FLDE to use $800,000 in unspent federal grant money to help pay for the effort. Hillsborough County Sheriff David Gee is co-chair of the regional strike force for west central Florida.
The Sheriff's Office says it's watching to see how the database program develops.
"As of now, we're strongly participating in the governor's strike force and continuing to utilize the investigative tools that we've always had in the past," said Hillsborough County sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.
Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, sponsored a House bill that calls for eliminating the database. But with senators resolute in their desire to keep it in place, that proposal is likely to go nowhere.
Still, Schenck said he'll continue his push.
"While some may say it doesn't cost the state anything, it's going to cost millions of law-abiding citizens their privacy and they don't deserve that, especially when research shows time and time again databases do not solve the problem," said Schenck, who chairs the House Health and Human Services Subcommittee. "Until we cut the supply of these drugs off, we're still going to have the epidemic we face."
Schenck backs legislation that he says attacks supply by prohibiting doctors from dispensing narcotics.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has been one of the most vocal supporters of the database.
"I'm extremely pleased. There's no reason for delay. It's in statute. The Legislature has voted on it," he said.
State lawmakers voted to create the program two years ago as part of an attempt to crack down on storefront pain clinics that hand out huge quantities of prescription drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax, and have made Florida a destination for drug dealers and abusers from other states. Laws also were passed that required registration and inspections of pain clinics, and prevented felons from operating the clinics.
The program was scheduled to launch in December, but then bid disputes between vendors delayed its start.
"I'm thrilled that it's going to move forward. It couldn't happen soon enough," said Paul Sloan, a Venice-based pain clinic owner and president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers.
But he observed that it's a long way from being up and running. And once operational, the program has major loopholes. There's no requirement that doctors check it before prescribing drugs. And they have a lengthy 15-day window to enter prescription information, ample time for doctor-shoppers to obtain large quantities of drugs before being detected.
The database alone won't solve Florida's prescription drug programs, Sloan said. The other missing piece, he believes, is the Board of Medicine's pain clinic regulations, which have been held up until the Legislature approves them.
"Neither one is the silver bullet," he said. "But together they come pretty close."
Claude Shipley, who worked as special projects officer in the state Office of Drug Control before Gov. Scott eliminated his job, has testified in several legislative committees about the need to preserve the database. He predicted the selected vendor, Health Information Designs, would have it up and running in about 90 days.
"That means by August or September it will be online," he said. "It will probably take about a year to show its utility. I'm very pleased. It's taken a long time for this to occur."
Times/Herald staff writer Katie Sanders and Times staff writer Letitia Stein contributed to this report. Janet Zink can be reached at email@example.com or (850) 224-7263.