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Pain rules under attack in Legislature

Even as Gov. Rick Scott insists law enforcement can take care of Florida’s notorious pill mills, many lawmakers appear intent on ripping down regulations passed over the past two years.

A Senate committee Monday approved a bill that would undo some pain-clinic regulations that lawmakers passed in 2009 and 2010. A separate bill also is moving through the Senate --- while the House has taken a radically different position.

For example, the bill approved by the Senate Health Regulation Committee 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."

Another part of the bill deals with perhaps the thorniest issue in the pain-clinic debate --- the use of a prescription-drug database to help track sales of dangerous painkillers. Under a 2009 law, doctors or pharmacists will have to submit information to the database within 15 days of dispensing such drugs.

But under Bogdanoff's bill, they would have to do so within 24 hours. Claude Shipley, a former state drug-control official who has worked extensively on the database, called that idea a "poison pill" to the database.

"There is no (prescription-drug monitoring database) in the United States that has that capability right now,'' Shipley said.

The other Senate bill, sponsored by New Port Richey Republican Mike Fasano, would reduce the time for submitting information to the database to seven days. Fasano, who was a leader in passing the database, said he also has concerns about Bogdanoff's proposal to eliminate the ban on dispensing more than three-day supply of drugs to cash-paying patients.

Bogdanoff said she hopes to work with Fasano to reach agreement on a final bill.

Bogdanoff's bill does not include a repeal of the database --- a position that Scott and House leaders have taken because of privacy concerns. But she acknowledged Monday her past opposition to the database, which has not started operating.

Adding to the crossfire, Senate Health Regulation Chairman Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, proposed an amendment to Bogdanoff's bill that would have eliminated the database. Garcia argues the database could lead to invading the privacy of people who legitimately need controlled substances.

"Today, it's fine,'' he said. "But what happens in the future?''

Ultimately, the Health Regulation Committee rejected Garcia's proposal in a voice vote.

The next step in the debate about pill mills is scheduled to come Wednesday, when the House Judiciary Committee will take up a House bill that also would revamp existing regulations.

One of the most-controversial parts of that bill would seek to ban doctors from dispensing drugs in their offices --- a move that House leaders say would cut off the problem of clinics acting as drug suppliers.

The Senate Health Regulation Committee meeting came about two hours after Scott 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 the 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.

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.