A major legislative fight is breaking out over Gov. Rick Scott's surprise proposal to kill Florida's planned computer database to combat pill mills.
A longtime opponent of the database, Sen. Joe Negron, R-Hobe Sound, said many Republican lawmakers are lining up against the database project, and he predicted that the Senate and House would agree to scrap it.
Meanwhile, database supporters from across the state – medical associations, police, anti-drug organizations and families who lost relatives to pain-pill overdoses – rushed to mount a lobbying campaign to fend off the challenge.
"We're all angry. It's like the governor hasn't even heard about all the people dying," said Pembroke Pines grandmother Sherrie Pongrace, whose son William died from an overdose of pills from a pain clinic. "We need to do everything we can to stop these pill mills."
Police and community leaders persuaded the Legislature to approve the database in 2009, saying it is the best weapon to combat pill mills and to prevent Florida's seven daily deaths from pain pill overdoses.
Under the database system, medicine sellers would have to report every prescription for narcotic painkillers. Doctors, pharmacies and law enforcement could check the computer system to see if patients were obtaining excessive quantities of pills from multiple sources, as is common among addicts and drug dealers at pill mills.
Forty-two states have authorized monitoring systems and 38 are operating. Florida is the largest state without one, and some experts blame that fact for an explosion of pill mills in South Florida – now spread to Central Florida – that have become the single biggest source of narcotic pills in the Southeast.
The cost of about $500,000 a year is being financed by grants and donations, not taxes. The system was supposed to start Dec. 1 but is stalled by a protest filed by a losing bidder.
Republican legislators had thwarted the database for eight years, calling it an unwarranted government intrusion into people's privacy. But eventually, it passed unanimously in the Senate and by a vote of 106-13 in the House.
This week, Scott's first budget included a sentence repealing the database. He has been quiet about his reasons, other than his staff saying he feels government should not be monitoring prescriptions.
House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, one of the 13 no votes in 2009, assigned the Health and Human Services Committee to review the project and look at other ways to combat pill mills. The committee chairman then came out against it.
"I think it's on its way out," Negron said. "There's a lot of support to repeal it. The government has no business monitoring the medical records of law-abiding citizens. There's a reason when you go to the doctor that they shut the door."
GOP lawmakers would prefer to find a private-sector solution, he said, but offered no specifics.
The sudden resurgence of opposition has shocked database supporters: Medical groups, university professors, addiction treatment agencies and an association of pain clinic owners.
And Sherrie Pongrace. Her son William died a year ago at age 28 from an overdose of narcotic pills, leaving behind a wife and three-year-old son. A mechanic who hurt his back in an accident, he got addicted at a pain clinic.
"The governor is not thinking about people like us," Pongrace said. "The addicts, they go from one pharmacy to the other pharmacy to the other pharmacy. They can have six prescriptions out there at the same time, all from different doctors. I saw my son do it. He lost everything he had in life and then we lost him."
Database supporters are organizing a lobbying campaign to counter the argument that the system is an invasion of privacy.
Karen Perry, executive director of the Narcotics Overdose and Prevention Education Task Force (NOPE) in West Palm Beach, is sending video discs to Scott and lawmakers showing a montage of almost 400 people who died from overdoses. She is rallying a letter-writing campaign by parents, like her, who have lost children to overdoses.
"We're going to start by flooding the inboxes," Perry said. "We think it's just a small group of people in power who are against it."
The Florida Coalition Alliance, a group that works to prevent substance abuse, is planning a series of actions, said chairwoman Pat Castillo, who works for the United Way of Broward County.
"We've been working on this for nine years. This is not a good thing for Florida. We cannot let this happen," Castillo said.
Scott's action has attracted national attention.
Dr. Daniel Mongiardo, lieutenant governor of Kentucky, a state hit hard by abuse of pain drugs from Florida, told the Lexington Herald-Leader he was "infuriated" by Scott's proposal.
Don Burke, an Ohio narcotics officer who is president National Association of Drug Diversion Investigators, called the move "horrible news" for the Southeast.
Some supporters worry that even if the database project survives the repeal attempt in the Legislature, the Scott administration will do nothing to implement it, and let it die through inaction.
"It could just languish," said Bill Janes, a former Florida drug czar who helped pass the database. "There should be loud clamoring from the public. If they really want it, they need to demand accountability."
Big fight breaks out over pill mill tracking system
GOP lawmakers say they have muscle to kill proposed system
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