Once local law enforcement and the Florida Legislature finally committed to addressing prescription drug abuse, it made a difference. The welcome news that prescription drug deaths in the Tampa Bay area are down 30 percent since 2010 is surely a result of a focus on unscrupulous pain clinics and easy access to pills. But there is more work to be done, and boosting the state's still-tepid commitment to a prescription drug database is the place to start.
The proposed state budget delivered to Gov. Rick Scott includes $500,000 to keep the database operating for another fiscal year. But the Legislature still refuses to permanently commit state money to the project, and it didn't change rules that bar pharmaceutical companies from contributing to the program's costs. The double standard is problematic. Some lawmakers say they want the database privately funded, but then cut off a logical financing source — drug manufacturers — in a thinly disguised attempt to kill the database.
Nor are lawmakers willing to require physicians and other practitioners to check the database before writing new orders for controlled substances like OxyContin, Percocet, Xanax and Valium. This undercuts the entire point of the database, which is to curb doctor-shopping.
Already the database is credited with helping to reduce the quantity of powerful painkillers available on the street. The state Health Department reported that nearly 5,000 pharmacies entered controlled substance prescriptions into the database and that doctors and health care providers used the system 2.6 million times last year. Law enforcement accessed the data 20,000 times during criminal investigations.
The database, greater regulation of the cash-only pain clinics known as pill mills, and increased law enforcement focus contributed to the numbers released this week. Medical examiners' offices reported accidental drug overdoses down by 25 to 41 percent in Pinellas, Pasco, Hillsborough and Hernando counties. Combined, the deaths fell from 740 three years ago to 520 in 2012.
That is still too high. The 305 deaths in Pinellas and Pasco counties in 2012 is nearly 50 percent higher than the two counties' prescription drug fatalities in 2003, the year then-Gov. Jeb Bush threw his support behind a database that failed to materialize until 2011.
Stopgap measures must end. The prescription drug monitoring program requires a long-term commitment from Tallahassee to ensure that the public health risks from prescription drug abuse continue to decline.