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Key House chair targets drug database

House Health and Human Services Chairman Rob Schenck does not like Florida's prescription-drug database. That much is clear.

But after listening to more than two hours of testimony Thursday about the state's notorious pill mills, the Spring Hill Republican refused to say how he wants to combat prescription-drug abuse.

Schenck said he will release a pill-mill proposal during the second week of March that could include a repeal of the controversial database. As a sign of House support for a repeal, Majority Leader Carlos Lopez-Cantera criticized the database Thursday as an invasion of privacy.

“Prescription drug abuse must be stopped at the source,'' Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, said in a statement e-mailed to reporters after Schenck's committee held the hearing. "We must work to prevent bad doctors from dispensing indefensible amounts of dangerous medical drugs, not utilize another big government program to penalize citizens for the legal use of prescription drugs.''

Schenck's stance, however, angered Karen Perry, a Palm Beach County activist whose son died of a drug overdose. Perry, who attended Thursday's meeting, said eliminating the database would be a step backward and pointed to drug addicts from other states traveling to Florida pill mills to get deadly narcotics.

"What I do know is that the people in some of the states that have (similar databases) are coming to our state to get their drugs,'' said Perry, executive director of a group called the NOPE Task Force.

Perry talked privately with Schenck after the hearing and was visibly upset when she talked with reporters a short time later. She said Schenck did not reveal how he would fight the drug problem.

"He did not give me any indication what that might be,'' Perry said.

The database has drawn national attention in recent weeks after Gov. Rick Scott proposed a repeal and gained the support of some House and Senate Republican leaders. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, however, supports the database, which could create a major obstacle to its elimination.

Lawmakers in 2009 approved creating the database to try to track prescription-drug dispensing and prevent addicts from doctor shopping. The database has not started operating, at least in part, because of a bid dispute among vendors.

Department of Health officials appeared before Schenck's committee to discuss plans for the database and to detail other efforts in curbing prescription drug abuse, such as pain-clinic inspections.

The hearing also came a day after authorities staged massive clinic raids in South Florida, leading to the arrests of 23 people and the seizure of $2.5 million. Charges included drug trafficking.

Schenck, however, appeared skeptical Thursday about whether such raids would solve the pill-mill problem.

"We've been raiding drug dealers for many, many years,'' he said. "There's still many, many drug dealers out there.''

Scott and some lawmakers have said they support a proposal by Attorney General Pam Bondi that includes increasing criminal penalties for doctors and clinics involved in wrongdoing.

But Claude Shipley, who helped spearhead the database's creation while working in the state Office of Drug Control, said he thinks the database would play an important role in fighting the prescription-drug problem.

After the database starts operating, Shipley said the "pill mills' customer base can be significantly chilled within one year such that a majority would go out of business.''

But Schenck, who has likened the database to Big Brother, said he has not seen proof that it would work.

"I just don't think it solves the problem,'' he said.