TALLAHASSEE — A controversial bill intended to combat the state's prescription drug-abuse woes appeared in jeopardy Thursday in part due to a dispute tied to the high-powered lobbying of two workers' comp doctors.
At issue: a proposed ban on doctors dispensing drugs in their offices. The House wants the ban and attached it to legislation intended to crack down on so-called pill mills.
The Senate doesn't want the dispensing ban.
Neither do a pair of South Florida physicians: Paul Zimmerman and Gerald Glass.
The two Miramar workers' compensation doctors have helped pump about $3 million into the political system through a dozen companies in the past year.
Other special interests object to the dispensing ban as well, but the workers' comp issue stands out in the legislative gridlock.
"It's some issue that deals with workers' compensation as it relates to the doctor dispensing ban," said Brian Hughes, a spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott. "The governor is surprised that an issue this important seems to be bogged down in politics. Florida leads the nation in a very unfortunate way. This problem needs a serious response."
Florida has been under pressure by elected officials throughout the country to rein in pill mills, which lure people from other states seeking easy access to powerful painkillers.
"The governor strongly supports the dispensing ban. Strongly supports it," Hughes said.
There's not much time left to resolve differences. The legislative session ends today. And there are deep divides between the House and Senate.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who is sponsoring the Senate bill, said he opposes the dispensing ban tacked onto the bill by the House because it's bad policy. He said he just wants to pass legislation requested by Attorney General Pam Bondi, who wants more power to prosecute pill mill operators.
Bills in the House and Senate meet Bondi's goals, including stiff penalties for illegally prescribing narcotics.
They both also tweak reporting requirements in the state's prescription drug monitoring database — a computer system that Scott and House Speaker Dean Cannon had opposed because they said it could lead to the invasion of patient privacy.
The database is funded with federal grants and private donations raised by a foundation headed by an employee of Automated Healthcare Solutions, a company controlled by Zimmerman and Glass.
The company makes patient-management software for workers' compensation doctors who dispense drugs in-house.
The in-house dispensing by workers' comp doctors would have become far less profitable under a Senate pill price-fixing plan. But the House wouldn't go along Thursday, thereby protecting the profitable practice.
In the opening days of the March lawmaking session, Automated Healthcare Solutions contributed $70,000 to lawmakers. In the past year, Zimmerman and Glass have given more than $1 million to the Republican Party of Florida, $615,000 to a committee once run by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, $610,000 to two committees linked to Cannon, $295,000 to Scott's political committee and $60,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.
But in a sign that money doesn't guarantee peace, the doctors found themselves trying to stop the House pill mill bill in the Senate.
In addition to the doctor-dispensing ban, the House wants to set a 5,000 monthly limit on dosages that pharmacies can dispense.
That's something that has raised concerns by Fasano as well as hospitals and other health care facilities who say the limit is too low and will keep people who legitimately need pain medication from getting it.
Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who is managing the House bill, said he agreed to delay implementation of the dosage limit for a year so the state Department of Health could complete a study to determine the proper limit. "That was the deal we made in the (Senate) president's office," he said.
But the Senate, he said, refused to budge on the dispensing ban.
"We are held up on one exemption," Schenck said. "It's a special interest exemption that we in good conscience think causes too much of a loophole and jeopardizes our whole mission of shutting down this epidemic."
Late Thursday, the Florida Sheriffs Association sent an e-mail highlighting the workers' comp doctors controversy and urging law enforcement officers to lobby Haridopolos.
"A small group of doctors, who treat workers' compensation patients, are demanding to be exempted from the in-office dispensing ban and attempting to derail the entire bill," reads the e-mail. "The dispensing ban is critical to law enforcement's ability to combat the pill mill problem in our state and no exception should be made."
But Ron Sachs, a spokesman for Zimmerman and Glass, said the House has gone too far.
"Everyone agrees on the overarching need for a surgical strike to stop pill mills," Sachs said. "But there's a big difference between a surgical strike and a carpet-bombing that wipes out the doctor-patient relationship."
Janet Zink can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (850) 224-7263.