Before he was even sworn into office, Gov. Rick Scott abolished the state agency tasked with reducing substance abuse and canned Florida's drug czar.
Early this month, he stunned legislators and law enforcement when he proposed eliminating Florida's much-anticipated prescription-drug database, which is touted as the best tool for combating the state's drug epidemic.
Scott's actions confounded Floridians and drew sharp criticism from leaders across the nation who see Florida as a source state for prescription drugs.
"The notion of canceling Florida's [prescription-drug-monitoring program] is equal to firing firefighters while your house is ablaze," U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, a Republican from Kentucky, wrote to Scott on Feb. 17. "It neither makes sense nor addresses an urgent crisis."
The Governor's Office did not respond to repeated requests for comment made by the Orlando Sentinel — either about eliminating the drug database or about Scott's plan to combat escalating prescription-drug abuse in Florida.
Florida legislators in 2009 approved the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, a database at least 34 states already use, to cut down on fraud and discourage doctor shopping.
Though Scott would not speak with the Sentinel, his office has said he wants to scrap the PDMP because it won't succeed in beating pill mills and there isn't enough funding for it. Scott has also said he doesn't think it is the state's responsibility.
The database tracks prescriptions of certain types of drugs, such as painkillers, and law-enforcement officials say such programs are one of the best tools they have in the battle against prescription-drug abuse. Florida's PDMP was scheduled to be operational by Dec. 1, but that hasn't happened because of a bid dispute.
Rogers said in his letter that "a giant sigh of relief swept across the nation" when Florida's PDMP was signed into law.
"Thousands of unscrupulous drug dealers and addicted users have made the trek to your state because of the ease of access to these powerful and habit-forming drugs," wrote Rogers, whose state leads the nation in the nonmedical use of prescription drugs. "And after years of prodding, your predecessor acknowledged the need for action."
Leaders from across the nation have implored Florida's governor to reverse his position on the PDMP.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson — along with colleagues from New York, Rhode Island and West Virginia — wrote Scott to express "grave concerns" about the proposed elimination of the monitoring program.
"Such a policy not only leaves Florida exposed to criminal elements in the business of trafficking controlled substances, but also has serious ramifications for the rest of the country battling abuse of prescription drugs," the senators wrote in their Feb. 20 letter.
Kentucky is a prime example.
That state has a prescription-drug-monitoring program, and law enforcement there recognized years ago that their residents travel to Florida to avoid having their drug transactions tracked.
In November 2009, about 500 people were arrested in a massive roundup targeting those who traveled to the Sunshine State to get their prescription drugs, said Kentucky State Police Trooper John Hawkins.
Kentucky's prescription-drug-monitoring program, Hawkins said, is a great investigative tool and a deterrent.
"Our citizens know that they're being tracked," Hawkins said.
As of October, 43 states, including Florida, had enacted legislation to implement a PDMP. Many of the startup costs for the databases, including Florida's, were paid by federal grants. The DEA has told Congress its goal is to facilitate the establishment or enhancement of state PDMPs.
Even the White House has taken notice of Scott's intentions.
Kerlikowske was not available for an interview, but office spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the nation's prescription-drug epidemic "stretches across borders and requires a collaborative response from all of us."
"We owe it to the thousands of victims of prescription drug abuse in Kentucky, Florida, and throughout the Nation to work together to implement state initiatives like Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs that we know work to reduce this public health threat," he said.
Database idea 'not perfect'
On Wednesday, drug investigators arrested 23 people during sweeping raids at two dozen pain clinics from Miami to West Palm Beach, in the biggest single attack at Florida's pill-mill trade. In announcing the raids, officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and South Florida police and prosecutors said Florida needs the drug database to combat the problem.
Mark Trouville, special agent in charge of the DEA office in South Florida, would not comment on Scott's plan to kill the database but said the lack of a prescription-monitoring system is one reason pill mills took such a strong foothold in Florida. He said the criminals know which states have databases and go to states that don't.
"In the states that have a PDMP, the problem is nowhere near as serious as it is here," Trouville said. The states that have them have reduced the amount of pill activity, or pushed it out of their states, he said, which indicates the systems are successful.
At a House Health and Human Services Committee workshop Thursday, chair Rep. Robert Schenck, R-Spring Hill, was clearly hostile toward the database. Others on the committee questioned whether illicit clinics and unscrupulous doctors would report to a database honestly and why Florida even allows some doctors to dispense drugs directly rather than sending patients to a pharmacy.
Although Schenck voted for the database in 2009, he said he heard nothing in Thursday's workshop to convince him of its likely effectiveness: "It forfeits people's privacy for a reason that's not solving a bigger problem. There's no conclusive proof that [databases] either help or exacerbate the problem."
Bruce Grant, who headed Florida's Office of Drug Control until Scott abolished it in January, said the fact that Florida has such a huge prescription-drug problem is "a testament to the fact we didn't have anything in place."
"If you've got a better idea than the PDMP, let's hear it," Grant said. "It's not perfect, certainly, but at least it's a start at cutting back on people dying. How could you be against that?"
UCF political-science professor Aubrey Jewett says several factors probably are at work in Scott's decision-making: He ran as an political outsider, he's facing a huge budget deficit and he "just doesn't seem to have a lot of knowledge about public policy and what the state has done over the last year," Jewett said.
And, Jewett said, it makes the governor appear soft on crime.
"It would really be unthinkable for a Republican governor not to fight the war on drugs," Jewett said. "The thought that a Republican governor would scale back in any way would be unthinkable. But times have changed."
Staff writers Bob LaMendola and Tonya Alanez contributed to this report. firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5735Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun