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Scott, Bondi announce crackdown on “OxyContin Express”

As lawmakers remain divided about how to fight pill mills, Gov. Rick Scott on Monday announced a statewide law-enforcement effort to stop what he described as the "Oxycontin express.''

Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi said the Florida Department of Law Enforcement will work with other state agencies and local police to coordinate regional crackdowns on the illegal sales of painkillers.

"We're going to change the direction of this,'' Scott said during a news conference in the Capitol. "This is not going to continue.''

Scott also at least partially endorsed a House proposal to prevent doctors from dispensing drugs in their offices. Scott, however, added a caveat that such a ban should include "appropriate" exceptions --- and didn't elaborate about what those exceptions might be.

Florida has become a magnet in recent years for drug abusers and traffickers from other states, as unscrupulous clinics and doctors have prescribed and sold massive amounts of drugs such as Oxycontin.

Pill mills also have become one of the most-controversial issue of this spring's legislative session, as Scott and House leaders call for scrapping a prescription-drug database that lawmakers approved in 2009 to help track painkiller sales.

A Senate committee Monday rejected a proposal to kill the database, which has not started operating. Senate Health Regulation Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, proposed the elimination because he argues the database could lead to invading the privacy of people who legitimately need controlled substances.

"Today, it's fine,'' said Garcia, who tried to add the database elimination to another bill dealing with pill mills. "But what happens in the future?''

But Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who was a leader in passing the database, said 34 other states have similar programs. Ultimately, the Health Regulation Committee rejected Garcia's proposal in a voice vote.

The committee, however, approved a bill that would make changes to prescription-drug laws passed during the past two years. For example, it would eliminate a ban on doctors dispensing more than a three-day supply of drugs to patients who pay with cash or credit cards.

Lawmakers said last year that such a ban would help prevent drug abusers from going to clinics with wads of cash and walking out with large supplies of drugs. But bill sponsor Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said she is concerned about hindering legitimate dispensing of drugs.

Bogdanoff said she is trying to strike a "balance between legitimate pain-management doctors and drug dealers.''

Fasano, who said he has concerns about changing the 72-hour ban, also is moving forward with another bill that addresses pain clinics. Bogdanoff said she hopes to work with Fasano to reach agreement on a final bill.

Scott tried to stay away from the database issue during the news conference Monday, though he acknowledged the disagreement with the Senate and other supporters of the tracking system.

The new law-enforcement effort will include providing $800,000 to local police agencies to help pay for costs such as officer overtime. FDLE Commissioner Jerry Bailey said the money will come from leftover federal grant funds.

Bailey said a meeting will be held Tuesday in Orlando to start coordinating the effort, which will be broken up into seven regions. Along with local police, the effort will also involve officials from the Florida Department of Health, the Agency for Health Care Administration and the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Flanked by police chiefs, sheriffs and prosecutors during the news conference, Scott said the prescription-drug problem involves a chain of players, including wholesalers.

"We should be able to figure out how to stop this,'' he said.

Bondi has been an outspoken supporter of stiffening criminal penalties to address the problem.

"We all recognize what a tremendous problem this is,'' she said.

--Capital Bureau Chief Jim Saunders can be reached at 850-228-0963 or by e-mail at jim.saunders@healthnewsflorida.org.