TALLAHASSEE — After years of stalled efforts to stop prescription-drug abuse and slow the state's growing pain clinic industry, the Florida Senate on Friday passed legislation to create a statewide monitoring system to track those ''doctor shopping'' for addictive pills.
The proposal by Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican, was approved 39-0 and would create a statewide database to track the prescriptions written and filled for certain medications, including narcotic painkillers such as oxycodone.
Doctors, pharmacists — and, in some cases, law enforcement — could then use that information to look for people "doctor shopping," a term used for those who go from doctor to doctor to get prescriptions for addictive medications.
Thirty-eight other states already have prescription tracking databases. But privacy concerns have stalled previous attempts to create one in Florida, making it the largest state without one.
Investigators say that has made Florida a prime destination for drug dealers and addicts from around the nation.
In the Tampa Bay area, fatal prescription drug overdoses have soared in recent years to more than 500 annually. Prescription drug deaths now run neck-and-neck with auto crashes as the leading cause of accidental death in the region.
Statewide, prescription drug overdoses are killing more than 2,000 people a year, more than tripling the number of deaths attributed to illicit drugs like cocaine and heroin.
"The state has turned a blind eye to this," said Sen. Dave Aronberg, a Greenacres Democrat. "We've become the drug supplier for the rest of the country."
The proposal now heads to the House, where it is expected to pass.
Some members in that chamber, however, have expressed concerns about creating a state-run database, a sentiment echoed by some senators Friday.
"I absolutely agree with the goal of this bill, but to give some bureaucrat in Tallahassee access to your medical records, it scares the heck out of me," said Sen. Charlie Justice, a St. Petersburg Democrat. "So I would urge that we are careful and take every available step to protect privacy."
Fasano said health insurers already track prescription information of their patients, and the current proposal targets those paying cash for medications.
Joel Kaufman, director of Broward County's Commission on Substance Abuse, said the prescription database will be less a tool for police than an aid for doctors, allowing them to identify potential addicts and get them drug treatment.
Alarmed by the steady rise in prescription drug addiction and overdose deaths, Kaufman's organization and other health advocates have led a drumbeat for a prescription database over the past seven years.
"It feels great that it's gotten this far," Kaufman said. "But until it gets to the governor's desk, I'm cautiously optimistic."