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Doctors do surgery on DOH’s drug-dealing bill

A bill aimed at giving the Surgeon General more power to stop doctors who over-prescribe narcotics passed its first House panel today, but only after a rewrite that took out the word "suspension."

The Health & Human Services Quality Subcommittee passed a totally rewritten version of HB 1143 -- a compromise that the sponsor, Rep. Fred Costello, said his staff worked out between the Florida Medical Association and  Department of Health.

The rewritten bill would allow the Surgeon General to issue an emergency order restricting a practitioner from prescribing controlled drugs -- potentially addictive and often abused -- while the case is pending.

The emergency order could not suspend the doctor from practice, as the original bill would have allowed.

The bill further provides that after the emergency restriction on prescribing is issued, a "probable-cause panel" from a professional licensing board has 20 days to uphold the order. After that a formal hearing with witnesses can be scheduled.

The changes should "lower some of the angst" that doctors and dentists have about the bill, said Costello, R-Ormond Beach, but still "allow DOH to do things they need to do to protect the public."

Surgeon General Frank Farmer had asked for broadened authority to deal with health-care licensees who fuel the prescription-drug frenzy. The CDC has called addiction to controlled drugs a nationwide epidemic, and Florida has been identified as the source of narcotics for drug-selling operations in many states.

DOH's legal staff has chafed at constraints preventing the agency from removing illicit suppliers and addicted professionals from practice as soon as an arrest is made. Usually the practitioner is released on bail, and it can take years to work through the court process to a conviction.

But several House members at the hearing said they were concerned the bill interferes with the right to due process under the Constitution.

"An arrest does not mean 'guilty,' said Rep. Elaine Schwartz. "We are a country of laws."

Costello, who is himself a dentist, observed that a license to practice medicine or dentistry is a privilege granted by the state, not a Constitutional right. But he said his staff would continue to work on the language of the bill to address legal protections.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, has introduced a measure in the Senate that addresses similar concerns.

Health News Florida published a series of reports last year exposing long delays between arrests of health-care professionals and the imposition of discipline. In some cases, HNF found health-care licensees who had gone to prison and still had "clear, active" licenses with the state.

The 2011 Legislature tightened regulations on pain-management clinics and authorized the creation of a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program that contains information from pharmacists on scripts for controlled drugs they have dispensed. Only physicians and law enforcement are entitled to use the database.

Since its launch in October, E-FORCSE (Electronic Florida Online Reporting of Controlled Substances Evaluation) has reportedly amassed more than 21 million records. The state reports that more than 100,000 reports have been checked.

---Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to journalism in the public interest. Contact Carol Gentry, Editor, at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.