Every day in Florida, six people die of prescription drug overdoses. In 2008, Pinellas County led the state with 376 prescription drug deaths. One in 10 of Florida's fatal oxycodone overdoses that year were in Hillsborough County.
Tallahassee finally has a plan for cracking down on pain management clinics, the so-called pill mills tied to illegal trafficking and abuse of prescription drugs that lead to deaths and violent crimes. And it's appropriate that the Pinellas County Commission also has adopted a moratorium to prohibit any more pain clinics from opening. Both measures are long overdue.
Two Republican Tampa Bay area lawmakers, Sen. Mike Fasano of New Port Richey and Rep. John Legg of Port Richey, sponsored Senate Bill 2272, which mirrors state task force recommendations and is expected to be signed by Gov. Charlie Crist. It mandates doctor registrations, requires third-party accreditation and Department of Health inspections. It controls how the clinics advertise and, most notably, bans clinics —but not pharmacies — from dispensing more than a 72-hour supply of controlled substances to patients paying with cash, check or credit card. The regulations target the most brazen offenders prescribing and dispensing months-long supplies of prescription drugs that are resold on the streets. Violations will be third-degree felonies. That will make it easier for law enforcement to pursue criminal charges instead of licensing penalties.
The legislation is welcome, but overdue. Past inaction spurred local governments in Palm Beach and Broward counties to enact their own zoning rules and moratoriums to curb the proliferation of the clinics. At the urging of Commissioner Susan Latvala, Pinellas County just adopted a similar strategy until a local task force can propose its own regulations.
The havoc wreaked by prescription drug abuse isn't limited to the region's big cities. In Pasco County, the number of violent crimes tied to prescription drugs jumped 83 percent last year even though the overall crime rate dropped. In Hernando County, seven people died from prescription drug overdoses in a five-week period ending April 7 and more people there died of prescription drug-related deaths (135) than from traffic accidents (127) over a 3½-year period.
But Florida's lax regulation is fueling the national problem as out-of-state buyers and traffickers come to the state to buy drugs and then take them back home to sell. Florida is one of only 12 states without an electronic prescription drug monitoring program to cut off doctor shopping. The result is a state home to 92 of the top 100 dispensers of oxycodone, the most popular painkiller on the street. Florida's version of the monitoring program was signed into law in 2009, but won't be operational until next year.
Fearful of clinics attempting to identify and exploit loopholes, Legg said he hoped local governments follow with their own ordinances and aggressive law enforcement. Indeed. Curbing prescription drug abuse will take more than bureaucratic oversight from Tallahassee. Crist should sign SB 2272, but Latvala was right to push Pinellas County to be a part of a broader remedy.