Gov. Charlie Crist on Thursday signed legislation aimed at curbing the growing black-market of illegal prescription drugs flowing from South Florida pain clinics across the eastern United States.
The new law, passed nearly unanimously in the Legislature, will require doctors and pharmacists to record patient prescriptions for most drugs in a state-controlled database.
This would allow health-care professionals — and police and regulators, in some circumstances — to detect patients who go to multiple doctors seeking pills, a practice known as "doctor shopping."
Florida was among only 12 states without a prescription-monitoring program, making the state a magnet for addicts and dealers seeking powerful painkillers such as oxycodone, narcotics detectives say. Florida clinics — some advertising discounts and offering coupons for gasoline — have supplied pills for narcotics rings in Kentucky, West Virginia, Tennessee, Ohio and Massachusetts.
Feeding this market are scores of freestanding pain clinics — as many as 100 in Broward County alone — where doctors sell pills with little oversight. At least 17 new clinics have announced openings in South Florida since the legislature passed the prescription bill on April 30.
In a racketeering indictment handed down last month, federal prosecutors alleged that members of the Bonanno organized crime family were also using pain clinics to distribute prescription drugs, court records show.
"Florida's lack of a prescription drug monitoring system has made our state a target for criminals looking to buy prescription drugs easily," Rep. Kelly Skidmore, D-Boca Raton, one of the bill's chief sponsors, said in a written statement. "I am pleased that we are now equipping physicians and law enforcement personnel with the tools they need."
The rise in prescription drug use has also had fatal consequences. Overdoses from painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs now cause more deaths than cocaine, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
Health advocates had been pushing for a monitoring system for at least seven years, but their efforts were routinely thwarted in Tallahassee, where some lawmakers worried the database would threaten patient privacy.
"This is really going to make a difference," said Joel Kaufman, director of Broward County's Commission on Substance Abuse and a longtime advocate of the legislation.
Now, Kaufman said, the state must plug the loopholes that allow pain clinics to operate with scant scrutiny.
Until now, many pain clinics have escaped rigorous state inspections because of a quirk in the law that exempts facilities that don't take insurance — and many clinics accept cash only. This loophole also allows clinic employees and owners to avoid the background checks required at other health clinics.
The Miami Herald has identified more than a dozen doctors and clinic owners in South Florida with disciplinary records or criminal convictions. One man continues to own an Oakland Park pain clinic while in jail awaiting trial on charges of trafficking oxycodone.
Under the new law, pain clinics will be required to register with the state Department of Health. The bill also mandates annual inspections of pain clinics and allows the state Board of Medicine to adopt new rules for doctors dispensing pills in these clinics.
The medical board has already tried to take a harder line with pain-clinic doctors.
Earlier this month, the board rejected as too lenient proposed settlements with three doctors accused of violating medical standards when dispensing drugs.
Dr. Rachael Gittens is accused of filling out 33 blank prescriptions for unnamed patients at the South Florida Pain Clinic in Wilton Manors, according to a complaint. The medical board is seeking to ban Gittens from the practice of pain management, and may place her on probation for one year, said Eulinda Smith, a health department spokesperson.
Gittens' employer at South Florida Pain was Christopher George, a Palm Beach County man with a criminal record of grand theft and illegal steroid possession, records show. Police in Kentucky, Tennessee and Ohio have arrested trafficking suspects carrying pills prescribed from doctors at the South Florida Pain Clinic, the Herald found.
Pills prescribed by Gittens were seized in a narcotics investigation in Boyd County, Ky., last year, police there said.
Gittens and her attorney could not be reached for comments Thursday.
South Florida Pain recently merged with another clinic, American Pain, in Boca Raton.