Pain clinics throughout the Tampa Bay area are now subject to strong local laws that took effect this week, prompting a rush of licensing applications and some complaints that the crackdown on prescription drug abuse is either too tough or not tough enough.
By Monday's deadline for license applications, Hillsborough County had received paperwork from 52 clinics.
"Believe it or not, we had people running from the car to get in here" by 5 p.m. and pay the $1,500 application fee, said Kevin Jackson, chief investigator for the county's Consumer Protection Agency.
In Pinellas County, whose ordinance also became fully effective Monday, five clinics have stopped operating, and others are under investigation.
And in Tampa, two applications for required permits have come in "but I think we'll see more once word gets out," said Jake Slater, director of code enforcement and business tax.
The proliferation of "pill mills" and the surge in deaths from addictive prescription drugs galvanized local governments this spring into regulating pain clinics in advance of a strong state law that takes effect in October.
"This is probably the No. 1 single worst issue that's affecting this community and every other one," said Hillsborough County Commissioner Rose Ferlita, a pharmacist.
The county's ordinance, which includes Temple Terrace, Plant City and unincorporated areas, requires pain management clinics to get a $1,500 annual license. Clinics won't be allowed to operate if the owner or any employee has lost a professional license or been convicted of a crime involving controlled substances.
Ferlita said she has heard some complaints that the ordinance is a knee-jerk reaction that doesn't adequately distinguish between legitimate pain management practices and "places that just pop up" to prescribe pills.
"We need to better define what a real pain management clinic is supposed to do," she said. "It should be something very comprehensive, with neurosurgeons involved, perhaps psychiatrists. It needs to be a more comprehensive foundation to help people who really need pain management and aren't just feeding an addiction."
Jackson, the chief investigator, said it will take a few weeks for the county to inspect clinics and do background checks on hundreds of doctors and employees. Only then will licenses be issued, though clinics can continue to operate until then.
"We've got a good list going of who's in compliance and we're trying to eliminate the bad guys, so to speak," Jackson said.
In Pinellas, a landlord struggling to evict a Seminole pain clinic complained that he can't get anyone to help him even though the clinic hasn't registered as required under the county's new ordinance.
"All my other tenants are wanting to leave because all these druggies are lined up," Paul Crevello said. "What's a business owner to do when they (authorities) don't enforce the law?"
Tim Burns, director of the Pinellas Department of Justice and Consumer Services, said he couldn't comment on a specific case. But he said the county is reviewing all 59 pain clinics that it has identified from various sources.
"We've looked at everything from phone books to Internet ads to blogs to Facebook, and we're still trying to find others," he said.
The ordinance, which covers St. Petersburg and other Pinellas cities, imposed a moratorium on new pain clinics effective June 7 and gave existing clinics until Monday to register.
So far, the county has cited a Gulfport clinic for not registering. It also issued a warning to a Palm Harbor clinic with a sign that said: "Tired of waiting? Pain management in 30 min or less. Out of state OK." The clinic had properly registered but its portable, off-premises sign violated county code.
Five other clinics tacked signs to their doors saying they would no longer see patients due to the moratorium. One of the five, however, has an office still open in Pasco County, which has yet to pass an ordinance.
By week's end, Burns said, the Pinellas government website should have a list of all pain clinics and their status, along with a request for help from the public. The address is pinellas county.org.
"We're going to ask anybody who's aware of activity or noncompliance to let us know. Part of it is asking citizens for their help because we can't always be as fast as some of these places move."
Susan Taylor Martin can be reached at [email protected]