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Drug-dealing doctors focus of bill

The Department of Health would have greater authority to restrict the practice rights of health professionals caught working in “pill mills”  under a bill being heard this morning.

HB 1143 would give DOH authority to act immediately, rather than wait for months or even years until a felony conviction is handed down.

The bill responds to a series of reports in Health News Florida last year detailing the glacial pace of discipline and weakness of state regulations to deal with health professionals arrested for various offenses, including over-prescribing narcotics.  HNF named  doctors, dentists, mental-health counselors and nurses who had been arrested – in some cases, even imprisoned – yet still had clear licenses on the DOH consumer lookup site.

In response, Florida’s Surgeon General Frank Farmer set up a system to flag important cases for speedy prosecution. He said in a July interview,  “It’s not acceptable to the public to see these guys still in practice after reading about them being arrested. It’s not acceptable to me, either.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach, would give DOH the discretion to suspend or restrict the license if there is evidence that indicates the public could otherwise be harmed. The practitioner would have the right to appeal.

The bill would also direct judges, when making bail decisions, to determine whether a license restriction is necessary to protect the community. Judges would not have the ability to restrict a license themselves, but would issue the opinion for DOH follow-up.

The hearing is at 8 before the House Health & Human Services Quality Subcommittee.

In a discussion of the issue in a Senate committee last fall, some members said they worried such a move might infringe on the property rights of doctors by acting before they get their day in court. Such objections are expected to resurface now that there is a bill to discuss.

Sen. Ronda Storms, R-Valrico, has introduced a measure with similar provisions in the Senate.

DOH Communications Director Ryan Wiggins said Costello’s bill “works hand in hand with the pill mill legislation from last year.” 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 Tampa Tribune reports that more than 100,000 reports have been checked.

Here are links to the series of Health News Florida articles on weaknesses in the laws and regulations governing health professionals who have been arrested:

--RN settles fraud claims for $1.66 million, but license is still clear.

-- Health Department flying blind on crime, and profiles of some practitioners who have felony convictions but clear licenses.

--Doctors lose DEA licenses in pill-mill crackdown, but are still active.

--Most "pill-mill" doctors have "clear, active" licenses.

---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.