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Tampa Bay summit on prescription drug abuse lifts veil on problem

TAMPA — The prescription for 30-milligram tablets of oxycodone looked real. It had the name of an actual doctor and the usual sloppy penmanship.

But the address turned out to be a vacant lot in St. Petersburg. And the phone number was to a prepaid cell phone.

The fake script illustrated a key aspect of prescription drug abuse: It's relatively easy to pull off, said Jeff Shearer, a Tampa police officer assigned to the Drug Enforcement Administration's Tactical Diversion Squad.

Shearer was one of about 80 people from the law enforcement and medical communities who filled a meeting room at the Grand Hyatt Tampa Bay Friday for summit on prescription drug abuse.

The event was organized by Associates in Emergency Medical Education Inc., a Tampa Bay company that trains medical personnel.

Detectives offered tips on spotting doctor shoppers. Attorneys and medical officials discussed the civil, criminal and ethical rules involved in such cases. And state Sen. Mike Fasano spoke about the recently signed prescription drug monitoring law.

"We need you guys," Hernando sheriff's Detective Cody Silagyi told the doctors. "We've picked up dealers who have sold these drugs to children."

Shearer said prescription drug abuse has "exploded in the last one to two years."

A 2008 St. Petersburg Times series confirms that observation. The series revealed that prescription painkillers and antianxiety drugs kill about 500 people a year in the Tampa Bay area, three times the number killed by illegal drugs.

Silagyi, Shearer and others on the front lines of the battle offered keen insight into their efforts.

People who used to deal in illicit drugs such as cocaine are now selling prescription drugs. Part of the reason? The poor economy — people can no longer afford cocaine.

Doctor shoppers — people who obtain large quantities of prescription drugs by going to different doctors — have similar characteristics, Silagyi said. They usually come from another county or city; they have insurance, but insist on paying in cash. And they often claim their medications were lost or stolen, though they have no proof.

As Shearer showed, faking a prescription or even an MRI report is relatively easy, especially with the help of technology. But Pinellas County sheriff's Detective Robert Osterland said subtle signs of fraud are evident if you look hard enough.

Osterland showed an MRI report that, at first glance, looked like the real thing. But a closer look revealed little things that raise suspicion — the phone number lacked a parentheses mark before the area code, but had one after the area code. The top of the report showed where the fax came from: Amscot Financial.

Shearer said doctors and pharmacists need to be more vigilant. Doctors, for example, should be suspicious of writing prescriptions for drugs that will cost $2,000 every 28 days to patients who have no job.

"In law enforcement," he said, "we call that a clue."

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

.Fast facts

What to watch for

Here are some signs that a patient is doctor shopping as a way to obtain large amounts of prescription drugs, according to Hernando County sheriff's Detective Cody Silagyi:

• The patient is from another city or county.

• The patient claims medications were lost or stolen, but has no proof that law enforcement investigated the matter.

• The patient asks for a certain type of drug and drug strength.

• The patient asks for an increase in quantity of the medication.

• The patient intentionally denies he or she is going to a pain management facility.

• The patient wants to get "in and out" of the facility with the prescribed medication.

• The patient has insurance, but insists on paying cash.

Tampa Bay summit on prescription drug abuse lifts veil on problem 06/19/09 [Last modified: Saturday, June 27, 2009 11:04am]
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