CLEARWATER — In an effort to confront a growing prescription drug abuse epidemic, Pinellas County is considering temporarily banning new pain management clinics from opening their doors.
The County Commission will consider a moratorium of 180 days or longer on new clinics as part of a proposal to study how to tackle the dilemma in Pinellas. A public hearing and vote is planned for May 4.
Under the draft measure by Commissioner Susan Latvala, a task force would be created to study how clinics could be regulated, with solutions recommended by January.
During that time, no clinics would be allowed to open.
"There are some real pain clinics that service a population that needs them. This is about going after the guys who set up in a strip mall," Latvala said.
Existing pain clinics would be allowed to stay in business, but would be required to register with the county. Using that process, the county would stop pain clinics from opening 30 days after the ordinance is passed.
"I think they're headed in the right direction," said Dr. Lynne Columbus, who runs a reputable pain management clinic in Palm Harbor. "It is definitely getting out of control."
Latvala said she proposed the measure after watching the problem grow locally and seeing reports of prescription pills from Florida pain clinics winding up as far away as Kentucky. She was also influenced by a friend whose son battled a drug problem.
The moratorium is similar to recent measures in Palm Beach and Broward counties. Those counties have experienced huge spikes in pain clinics and prescriptions for oxycodone and other frequently abused prescription drugs.
The moratorium is legal as long as the ordinance calls for it to terminate at some point, County Attorney Jim Bennett said.
While Broward and South Florida has become known as a ground zero for pill mills, Pinellas and the Tampa Bay area rank just below it as a haven. Traffickers, some from out of state, seek pain clinics to sell them pills, which they then deal on the street or back home.
Local law enforcement also has tried to address the problem. The Pinellas Sheriff's Office recently concluded a 10-month sting called "Operation Pill Poppers."
A 2008 investigation by the St. Petersburg Times found that prescription painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs kill about 500 people a year in the Tampa Bay area, three times the number killed by illegal drugs such as cocaine and heroin.
Pinellas led the state with 376 prescription drug deaths in 2008, and an upcoming tally should document more than 400 deaths in 2009, said Pinellas sheriff's Capt. Robert Alfonso, who oversees prescription investigations.
"That comes out to more than one a day. That's a startling fact for Pinellas County," said Alfonso, who estimates there are 40 to 60 pain clinics operating in Pinellas County.
Last year, Florida lawmakers passed a law creating a statewide prescription database that they hoped would curtail the prevalence of doctor shopping and pill mills.
But the database isn't yet ready for launch, which led Latvala to push for more immediate action in Pinellas.
Lawmakers have considered more regulations during the legislative session, but bills have become tied up.
With questions about Tallahassee's intentions and the database expected to remain under construction until the end of the year, counties feel pressed to respond more quickly, said Dr. Rafael Miguel, a pain medicine specialist affiliated with the University of South Florida.
That leads to moratoriums, Miguel said. He said it will stop the illegal pill mills from setting up shop, but it also prevents reputable pain clinics who treat legitimate patients from opening.
"It's a knee-jerk reaction to a serious problem," said Miguel.
David DeCamp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8779.