BROOKSVILLE — Gov. Jeb Bush supported it. Sheriffs throughout the state, including Hernando County's, got behind it. State Sen. Mike Fasano worked for years to see it through to law.
Now, Gov. Rick Scott wants to do away with the state's prescription drug monitoring program — and he'll get help from a local representative.
State Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, says he'll work to repeal a 2009 law mandating a database that he calls intrusive and predicts will be ineffective.
"Government is going to own this database and have a record of anybody that goes to fill a controlled substance prescription, whether they're good people, bad people, or in between," Schenck said Thursday. "That is big brother, big government, having way too much information, and it's a huge infringement on our rights."
Scott raised similar privacy concerns this week.
The law would require pharmacists and doctors to report information on anyone who has a prescription filled for such drugs as oxycodone, amphetamines, Vicodin and Xanax. Pharmacists and doctors would be able to check the database to see if a patient asking for pain pills already had a prescription filled recently.
The system was supposed to launch Dec. 1, 2010, but has faced delays, including two bid protests filed by a company not selected to set up the system.
More than 40 states have some kind of drug monitoring program, but Schenck said he isn't convinced Florida's law will work. He said a repeal measure has a "very, very likely" chance of passing in the House.
Schenck, who serves as chairman of the House's Health and Human Services Committee, said he will start holding hearings by the end of month to get ideas from law enforcement and members of the medical community about how to tackle the prescription drug abuse epidemic.
One option, he said, could be to make it more difficult to become a physician distributor of narcotics.
"We're taking a multi-pronged approach and it's going to be a comprehensive one," he said, "but it's not going to involve private citizens giving up their information, I can tell you that."
Schenck's opposition to the database pits him against at least two of Hernando's four-member legislative delegation, as well as law enforcement officials in the region.
"I'm kind of surprised that Rep. Schenck is taking a different perspective on this," said State Sen. Paula Dockery, a Lakeland Republican who supported the database.
She said she would listen for compelling new arguments for the repeal. "But if it's just rehashing, I think we've been there already."
State Rep. Jimmie Smith, an Inverness Republican, said Thursday that he wanted to research the issue. "Maybe there's a compromise there somewhere," he said.
Smith will find lots of support among law enforcement officials.
Pasco Sheriff Bob White supported the database. So did then-Hernando Sheriff Rich Nugent, who is now in Congress.
Current Hernando Sheriff Al Nienhuis, White's former second-in-command, calls the database a good idea.
And Citrus County Sheriff Jeffrey Dawsy, through a spokeswoman Thursday, described it as a "fundamental building block for law enforcement to wrap its hands around the life-threatening abuse of prescription drugs here in Florida."
But few in the region worked harder on the monitoring law than Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican whose district extends into Hernando County.
Fasano helped get the measure passed in the Senate three years in a row. Finally, the House went along in 2009, in large part because the state wouldn't be responsible for funding the program. Instead, the Office of Drug Control and the Department of Health is charged with raising the money. Through a foundation and grants, enough was raised to start the database and keep it running for a year. Estimates put the annual maintenance cost at $500,000.
Making the database exempt from the state's public records law eased many privacy concerns, Fasano recalled Thursday. Insurance companies already keep a database to catch doctor shoppers. The state database would track those paying cash, too, he said.
Fasano said he doubts that a repeal would pass the Senate, but he acknowledged he couldn't be sure.
"I just know this — people are dying," he said. "Young people, old people, this epidemic doesn't discriminate. (The database is) not something that may save lives. It will."
All the officials reached by the Times Thursday who support the database acknowledged that it can't be the only tool.
"If we hang our hat on one enforcement method, we're going to be outsmarted by the criminals every time because they're going to change their methods," Nienhuis said. "We have got to attack a problem like this from a multitude of angles."
With that in mind, Nienhuis is pushing forward with an ordinance to regulate pain management clinics. Nienhuis, who met with County Attorney Garth Coller on Thursday to discuss the issue, said the ordinance will likely be modeled after one in Pasco that requires clinics to purchase a permit through the county and be subject to inspection by law enforcement agencies.
As of December, authorities said, Hernando had 16 pain clinics in the application process or registered with the Florida Department of Health. There is no penalty for not registering, however, so more could exist. Sheriff's officials said recently that six new pain clinics are poised to open in the county within the next two months.
"The honest and legitimate businesses understand the problem as we do and are usually just as eager as we are to address this issue," Nienhuis said. "They don't want their industry to have black eye."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.