Hernando and state leaders at odds in pill mill fight

SPRING HILL — For State Rep. Rob Schenck, the news of the biggest prescription pill crackdown in Hernando County's history hit close to home.

The Spring Hill Republican's district office on Spring Hill Drive is a roughly 10-minute drive to Glory Pharmacy. Left on Linden Boulevard, right on Mariner Boulevard, about 5 miles one way.

In a news conference last week, Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis announced that a nine-month investigation focusing on Glory Pharmacy had culminated in 53 arrests — and counting. They included dozens of suspects accused of passing fraudulent prescriptions, along with Glory's two owners, who were charged with trafficking in oxycodone. A pharmacist faces charges of unlawful dispensing of a controlled substance.

A check of more than 2,200 prescriptions filled at the pharmacy over the past year showed that more than 1,400 were fraudulent, Nienhuis said, but the store's owners never called his department to report any suspicious prescriptions.

Detectives estimate that 97 percent of the pharmacy's sales were for prescription narcotics and that the store was responsible for putting more than 250,000 pills on the street.

Schenck, who has become a central figure in the debate over how to battle the prescription drug abuse and distribution in the Sunshine State, said this week he was not surprised.

"You ask any of my colleagues or constituents and everyone realizes this is an epidemic throughout Florida, and I don't think there are any places that are immune today," he said.

But Schenck's efforts in Tallahassee have him at odds with the state's attorney general over what many in law enforcement see as a key tool in fighting the epidemic.

As chairman of the House Health and Human Services Committee, Schenck has filed a bill to repeal the state's Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a database that would track drug-seekers who go from doctor to doctor and pharmacy to pharmacy. Schenck, like Gov. Rick Scott, calls the program intrusive and likely to be ineffective.

The database alone would do little to deter or detect an operation like Glory Pharmacy, Nienhuis said this week.

The monitoring program might have raised some red flags if employees were entering prescriptions into the system. A doctor, for example, could discover on the database that someone was writing fraudulent prescriptions on his pad.

"This was kind of an extreme case," Nienhuis said. "This was a pharmacy that was definitely a bad pharmacy."

So what kind of measures would deal with pharmacies that look the other way when handed suspected fraudulent prescriptions or, worse, scheme to bring in bogus prescriptions to boost business?

A Schenck-sponsored bill that would prohibit doctors from dispensing controlled substances already has passed his committee. That would target pain management clinics that prescribe pills, but Schenck said he also plans to add provisions that would "put a lot of restrictions on what kind of pharmacies can dispense this kind of medication."

"Pill mills like the one the (Hernando) Sheriff's Office busted would not even be able to get a hold of these sorts of medications," Schenck said.

Asked to elaborate how that would work, he replied, "That's all I can get into right now."

Schenck said a provision already in the bill would help, too. The measure would require wholesale distributors to report weekly distributions of controlled substances. The report would include the kind of drug delivered, how much and to which entity.

"So in the case in Hernando, the Sheriff's Office and others would have already had the distribution numbers and been alerted to the high volume of pills this pharmacy was receiving," Schenck said.

The investigation into Glory Pharmacy began with the June 2010 arrest of 55-year-old Larry Wilson Sr. in Gainesville, after he had bought 3,000 Xanax, methadone and oxycodone pills from the business. Wilson was headed to Tennessee to sell the pills, the sheriff said.

An anonymous tip then led vice and narcotics detectives to begin making controlled purchases at the pharmacy.

A distribution tracking provision "could definitely be another tool that we could use to help us identify and maybe home in a little quicker on the (pharmacies) that are the biggest problems," Nienhuis said.

But the reporting requirement would be much more effective in conjunction with the database, said Greg Giordano, spokesman for state Sen. Mike Fasano.

Fasano, R-New Port Richey, spent several years working to get the monitoring program passed by the Legislature. As part of the program, pharmacies would have 15 days to enter data on filled prescriptions.

"If the pharmacy is legitimate and they're entering the prescriptions they're filling, then the (database) would show these X number of bottles of OxyContin are being distributed to this number of people," Giordano said. "That's how it would become a tool and work with that reporting requirement."

Nienhuis agreed with that, too. He also noted that Wilson had organized more than a dozen people to serve as "walkers" who passed fraudulent prescriptions at Hernando mom-and-pop pharmacies including Glory Pharmacy. The database would help track that kind of enterprise.

"The bottom line is there's not going to be any one approach that's going to be a panacea," Nienhuis said. "You need to attack both the supply and the demand."

One big component on the supply side is pain management clinics, which officials say are sprouting up in Hernando County at an alarming rate.

Following a model already in place in other Florida counties — including Pasco, where he was second in command through December — Nienhuis is pushing the Hernando County Commission to pass an ordinance in the coming months that would place a moratorium on new pain management clinics from moving into Hernando for one year. The ordinance would require those clinics already here to pay a $2,500 local licensing fee.

The ordinance, Nienhuis said, would also allow authorities to periodically inspect the clinics to ensure they're running legal operations.

"This problem even shocks me, and I've been around a long time," he said. "Things don't shock me."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Hernando and state leaders at odds in pill mill fight 03/16/11 [Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2011 11:07am]

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