Gov. Rick Scott announced Monday that the state would set aside $800,000 for a statewide drug strike team to help law-enforcement shut down so-called "pill mills" as part of an overall effort to crack down on Florida's prescription drug-abuse problems.
"We are not going to be known as the OxyContin express," Scott said.
Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey announced the creation of the strike team at a news conference Monday. The group, Scott said, would use staff from several agencies to provide support to local law-enforcement officials investigating drug trafficking.
"I think my focus on this is, this should be a law-enforcement effort," he said.
Law-enforcement officials estimate more than 1,100 pain clinics statewide function as "pill mills" — dispensing or prescribing dangerously large amounts of pain medication that is often then sold on the street for a profit. A 2009 report found that seven people a day were dying of prescription-drug overdoses.
On Monday, Scott released figures showing that 98 of the top 100 doctors dispensing oxycodone nationally are in Florida — concentrated in the Miami, Tampa and Orlando areas. The 126 million oxycodone pills dispensed through Florida pharmacies are "by far" more oxycodone than is dispensed the other 49 states combined, his office said.
Scott, Bondi and the Legislature have all proposed different plans to combat what Bondi has called an "epidemic" of prescription-drug abuse. But the issue has become a political football.
Scott and the House want to repeal a 2009 law creating a prescription-drug-monitoring database and instead go after doctors who dispense medication. But Bondi and Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, want the database, which police say would enable them to identify and track doctors who prescribe large numbers of pain pills and patients who receive them.
Additionally, Bondi and Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, are working on legislation that would both preserve the database and create new penalties for doctors who over-prescribe medication.
Haridopolos released a statement after the announcement praising the governor but making clear the task force was only one part of a solution.
"The coordinated efforts of a statewide strike force will bring all of law enforcement together and provide a unified front against this scourge on our state," he said. "This is one additional weapon in our fight against drug trafficking."
Scott acknowledged at the press conference that he and other state officials were at odds over the database, but he told reporters that all of them are committed to resolving the prescription-drug abuse issue.
The strike force will use $800,000 available from various federal grants to pay overtime and other expenses to law enforcement working on drug-trafficking cases. Additionally, the departments of Health, Business and Professional Regulation and Financial Services, as well as the Agency for Health Care Administration, will provide staff who will be solely dedicated to the task force for the foreseeable future.
Bailey said he will meet with other strike-team members for the first time today in Orlando to outline a plan.
Scott and Bondi said they would continue to work on legislation, but they stayed away from debating the merits of the various plans being considered by the House and Senate.
The two chambers do not appear near agreement on how to address the pill-mill database. The House proposal repeals the database and bans doctors from directly dispensing pain medication. But the Senate Regulation Committee on Monday rejected a repeal attempt by Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah.
Garcia said he had privacy concerns, echoing comments by Scott. But other senators argued that the severity of the issue dictated the need for the database. Fasano said the database has been used in 34 other states to curb "doctor shopping" by individuals seeking pills.
"Residents from those 34 other states come to Florida," he said. "Many of them come here not for the sunny skies and the sandy beaches, but to get narcotics. Legal narcotics."
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