Gov. Rick Scott has proposed abolishing a long-awaited computer database that would track every Florida prescription for narcotic drugs, the state's main weapon against pill mills.
Documents accompanying Scott's budget proposal Monday ask the Legislature to repeal a 2009 law that approved the database. The database was set to start Dec. 1 but is stalled by a protest from an unsuccessful bidder.
"That program has not been working," Scott told reporters. "I'm working with Attorney General [Pam] Bondi to make sure that we deal with the issue that we have, and I'm working with her to make sure that we deal with this issue that we have with pill mills."
Earlier in the day, a spokeswoman said Scott did not think the database was a function best performed by government but did not elaborate.
Scott's proposal stunned legislators, law enforcement officials and others who have been waiting anxiously for two years for a tool that 42 other states use to track the illegal distribution of narcotic drugs from pain clinics. None knew that Scott would propose the repeal.
The law would require doctors and pharmacies to log every prescription for controlled substances. They and police could then check the database to see if a patient has received multiple, excessive prescriptions of narcotic drugs from multiple sources, a common practice among addicts and drug dealers who amass large quantities of drugs from rogue pain clinics.
Officials say pill mills – concentrated in Broward and Palm Beach counties – are the biggest single source of narcotic pills such as oxycodone that claim an estimated seven lives a day in Florida through overdoses. Many blame the proliferation of pill mills on Florida's lack of a database.
Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti said he met last week with Scott, who seemed receptive to the database. He said he told the governor that stopping pill mill abuse is his priority and the database is essential.
"I'm very surprised," Lamberti said. "I stressed that to him, that we really need it as a deterrent. It's no wonder we're ground zero for this stuff. We don't have a deterrent in place."
When word of Scott's proposal circulated Tuesday, protests arose from legislators, community anti-drug organizers, pain doctors and a pain clinic association, all of whom support the database.
"It's just bizarre," said Paul Sloan, a Venice clinic owner who is president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers. "There's nobody in the field of medicine trying to kill it. It's the best thing the state has done on pill mills."
Bondi, who last week came out with a get-tough proposal on pill mill doctors, spoke favorably about the database but steered clear of criticizing the governor.
"If properly implemented, the [database] could be an important additional tool to address prescription drug abuse," Bondi said in a statement.
Bondi's special drug prosecutor, West Palm Beach attorney Dave Aronberg, went further, saying he personally favors starting the computer system.
Even though Scott is proposing to cut $5 billion from the state budget, officials said they did not think cost was a factor on the database because the law requires it to be financed without tax dollars. It would be run with more than $500,000 raised from drug makers, foundations and federal grants, which would have to be returned.
Scott previously cut $550,000 by abolishing the office of drug control chief Bruce Grant, who was leading the charge for the database. The sponsor of the database law blasted Scott for both actions.
"It is beyond my comprehension why the governor would propose the total elimination of the two entities that have been, and have the potential to be, the best tools this state will have in fighting prescription drug abuse," said state Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
Several officials said they worried the Republican-controlled Legislature has grown more conservative this year and would seriously consider doing away with the database, but thought the repeal was unlikely to pass.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, will review the idea and is taking no position, a spokesman said. House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, also took a neutral tone and ordered the Health and Human Services Committee to study the idea.
Cannon "thinks we need to take a look at the whole issue of prescription drug abuse and decide what is working and what is not," said his spokeswoman, Katy Betta.
Staff Writer Tonya Alanez contributed to this report.
Bob LaMendola can be reached at blamendola@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4526.