The good news that prescription drug-related deaths dropped in Florida last year for the first time in nearly a decade suggests that hard-fought strategies for combatting this scourge are making an impact. And it should motivate state and local officials and the medical community to work even harder to try to prevent deaths and crippling addictions.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement announced Wednesday that prescription drug deaths fell by more than 6 percent in 2011. Deaths caused by oxycodone, an often abused painkiller, dropped 18 percent.
These developments are welcome in a state that had come to be known nationwide as a destination for drug traffickers and saw an average of seven people die each day from the abuse of prescription drugs. Many of them had initially obtained the drugs legally to deal with pain, only to become addicted. The epidemic affected countless other Floridians directly — either through their own addiction or that of a family member — or indirectly through increased crime, lost productivity and the impact on the community.
The lower death rate affirms that state and local officials, working together and in good faith, can make a life-or-death difference for hundreds of Floridians. Legislative and law enforcement efforts came to a head last year after increasing pressure from local authorities, some of whom had taken their own steps to ban new pill mills. A new state law banned most doctors from dispensing painkillers from their offices, and prosecutors and police became more aggressive in closing down pill mills and taking these narcotic traffickers to court. The state also finally embraced a prescription drug monitoring database. It requires anyone who fills a prescription to record the details in the database, where doctors and pharmacists can track what a patient is taking and who prescribed it.
But medical practitioners are not required to check the database — and as a Tampa Bay Times investigation found this month, the vast majority ignore it. And lawmakers' ambivalence to funding the database with tax dollars has led to real questions about its sustainability. Since the system's inception in September 2011, medical practitioners have checked the database before writing a prescription for just 2 percent of the more than 48 million prescriptions issued in Florida. That flaw works against everything the state is trying to achieve, and it gives trafficking operations another tool to legally hang on to the addiction business.
Attorney General Pam Bondi saw firsthand as a prosecutor in Tampa how prescription drug abuse destroyed lives and fueled the cycle of crime. And she, along with state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, has been a strong voice in moving the state to be aggressive. Florida shouldn't stop now. The Legislature needs to ensure adequate funding for the database and require practitioners to check it before writing a new drug order. And the state needs to devote more resources to law enforcement to identify and shut down pill mill operations. Prescription drug abuse must remain a public health priority if Florida is to ever build on these modest gains that were far too long in coming.