A 24-year-old mother of three is so desperate for an oxycodone high that she brings her 3-year-old son along to a bank robbery in Hudson. Six days earlier, Hernando County deputies charge a 26-year-old Spring Hill woman with manslaughter by culpable negligence after the January death of her 2-year-old daughter. The child overdosed after ingesting an oxycodone tablet left on a bedroom nightstand, authorities said, and the mother did not have a prescription for the painkiller.
The Pasco County case brought shame and remorse from the woman accused of robbing the bank. The Hernando death investigation brought denial from that mother. Both cases brought high-profile evidence, yet again, that prescription drug abuse remains rampant in Florida, even as local and state officials continue their crackdowns.
So-called pill mills, the unscrupulous pain management clinics with on-site pharmacies accepting cash payments, have been the main supply line for oxycodone and other prescription painkillers flooding the streets in a state where an average of seven people die each day from prescription drug overdoses. Earlier this year, the Hernando Sheriff's Office said 16 clinics had registered to operate. In Pasco County, 2010 data provided by the federally funded Pasco Alliance for Substance Abuse Prevention showed more than 30 pain management clinics.
A new state law to control the easy access to pain medication took effect July 1. Now, most doctors won't be allowed to fill prescriptions for narcotics from their offices, and pharmacies face tougher regulation. Perhaps most important, a much-delayed Department of Health database intended for medical professionals to check for prescription drug fraud is expected to be operational by Oct. 17. Florida now joins nearly three dozen other states with the monitoring tool.
Hernando commissioners last month wisely enacted a local ordinance that includes a yearlong moratorium on new clinics. Pasco County just extended its moratorium.
More work remains, and both commissions should look at the model adopted last month in Sarasota County. There, commissioners said, checking the database for patients who are doctor shopping will be mandatory for physicians. Under state law, the database is voluntary. The Sarasota County ordinance also sets zoning rules to establish where the clinics can operate.
Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, who led the Senate's charge for tighter controls on pill mills, said Friday he will ask the Florida Medical Association to encourage its member doctors to make use of the database. Legislation mandating the database checks could emerge in the 2012 Legislature.
"You have to make it mandatory. You have to,'' Fasano said. "Unfortunately, because of the opposition we saw this year, you have take baby steps to get there.''
Indeed. Gov. Rick Scott and members of the state House originally opposed the database as an invasion of privacy, and the House Republicans killed its intended funding source — private contributions from drug manufacturers. It is now financed with forfeiture money recovered by local law enforcement agencies.
Doctors shouldn't have to be nagged to do the right thing, and we trust that the great majority of legitimate physicians will use the database as intended — to try to curb the flow of dangerous drugs hitting the streets. Dead toddlers and bank-robbing mothers with kids in tow should be enough motivation.