It took a decade and was far too politically contentious, but the Legislature may finally have a comprehensive plan for attacking the prescription drug abuse epidemic that claims seven lives in Florida every day and contributes to the illegal drug supply across the eastern United States. That is good news for families directly affected and devastated by this scourge. But it is also good news for all Floridians, who share the epidemic's enormous social and economic costs.
The deal hashed out in the final hours of the 2011 session with the help of Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi ensures that by the end of summer, a much-delayed database aimed at tracking narcotics prescriptions will be in operation, similar to those in 34 other states. And the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program has even been improved, with the reporting requirements for pharmacies shrunk from 15 days to seven.
Also starting July 1, most doctors won't be allowed to fill prescriptions for narcotics from their offices, a provision that is expected to curtail the proliferation of so-called pill mills, those unscrupulous pain management clinics that function as little more than fronts for distributing narcotics.
Pharmacies of all sizes will face tougher regulation. And HB 7095, which Gov. Rick Scott is expected to sign, includes tougher penalties for doctors who abuse their prescription pads to profit from drug addiction.
That's a very different outcome than expected at the beginning of the legislative session, when House Republicans joined Scott in denouncing the database. The Republican-led Legislature had authorized it in 2009 — eight years after it was first proposed by then-Gov. Jeb Bush. But the database's implementation has been stalled by a vendor bid protest and ultimately, Scott's indifference, leading federal and other states' leaders to implore action.
By Friday night, as the annual session careened to a close, Scott joined Bondi on the House floor to watch the final passage of the bill, declaring victory. The House prevailed on its bid to ban most doctors from dispensing narcotics, but failed to cap the amount of narcotics a pharmacy could dispense. The compromise moves the state forward.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who has championed the database for years, credited Bondi's late- night phone calls the previous evening with finally making the deal happen. It was one of two significant session victories for Bondi, a former assistant state attorney from Tampa. The other was SB 146, which will make it easier for felons to obtain professional licenses and get back to work without having their civil rights restored.
Fasano predicted Friday: "If we get this to the governor by the end of the day, Florida will no longer be known as the pill mill capital of the world." More than any time in the past decade, such optimism doesn't feel far-fetched.