TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers on Thursday approved a plan to monitor the prescription drugs sold by doctors and pharmacists throughout the state, hoping to shed South Florida's reputation as the fountainhead of black-market painkillers flooding the eastern United States.
By a vote of 103 to 10, the House of Representatives agreed to create a statewide database to track drug purchases and curb "doctor shopping" by addicts and potential drug peddlers seeking pills from multiple physicians. Last week, the Senate also approved the bill, which Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to sign into law.
Florida is one of only 12 states without such a law — making the state a magnet for pill dealers from elsewhere who come to Florida's pain clinics to buy pills undetected, narcotics investigators say.
Backers of the bill say the database will allow doctors to track the prescription history of patients and flag those getting pills from other doctors. In some instances, law enforcement investigators will be able to obtain prescription records.
Investigators say the number of pain clinics in South Florida has ballooned from an estimated 60 to 150 in the past year — with at least 89 in Broward County alone.
"I'm ashamed that my county has the unenviable distinction of being the pill mill capital of the United States. We have a chance to change that," said Rep. Ari Porth, D-Coral Springs.
During Thursday's 90-minute debate, lawmakers also denounced the clinics for trying to lure patients with blaring advertisements, discount coupons and the promise of narcotics sold onsite.
"Come to Broward County. Have some fun. Buy some pills," scoffed Rep. Evan Jenne, D-Dania Beach.
Health advocacy groups battled for seven years to win approval for a prescription monitoring program, but the proposal was repeatedly shot down in the Legislature over patient-privacy concerns. The issue didn't gain traction among lawmakers until the prescription drug problem grew into a crisis. In recent years, South Florida pain clinics have become a chief supplier of illegal painkillers in the country. In the last half of 2008, the nation's top 50 doctors dispensing oxycodone — an addictive and potentially dangerous narcotic — all practiced in Florida, with 33 of them working in Broward, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Health officials say deaths from prescription drugs now triple deaths from illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin. Tampa Bay area prescription deaths have surged to more than 500 a year, while the state's death toll from now tops 2,000 annually.