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FL Surgeon General’s drug bill dies

When doctors are charged with pill-trafficking, Florida lets them make bail and go right back to prescribing while awaiting trial – even if it takes years. An effort to prevent that ended Tuesday.

Surgeon General Frank Farmer sought authority to restrict arrested doctors’ right to prescribe narcotics while their trials were pending. But the Florida Medical Association, the Florida Dental Association, and others argued that imposing restrictions would violate the accused person's right to "due process of law."

As a former president of FMA, Farmer was thought to have a better chance of getting such a bill through the Legislature than his predecessors. But even Farmer couldn’t do it.

"It's dead," said sponsor Rep. Fred Costello, R-Ormond Beach. "It won't come back up this session."

The bill had been scheduled for hearing by the House Criminal Justice Committee, but Costello removed it from the agenda with a "temporary pass," a parliamentary maneuver that means it is effectively kaput for the 2012 session.

It was a defeat for Farmer and the agency he leads, the state Department of Health. "Obviously we are disappointed,"  said DOH Communications Director Ryan Wiggins.

She said the bill offered an important tool to combat prescription-drug abuse and protect Floridians. "The issue remains a top priority for the Surgeon General," she said.

FMA's Vice President for Government Affairs, Rebecca O'Hara, said her group and others had worked hard with DOH to find an approach that would let Farmer act swiftly after an arrest without jeopardizing the rights of those who might eventually be acquitted.

But they ran out of time. "We just couldn't find a resolution that worked for everybody in the time remaining," she said. "We're going to keep working on this. The department's objective is a good one and we want to be supportive.

"We're not asking for special treatment, just due process of law," O'Hara said.

As Health News Florida reported on Friday, medical groups regard any infringement on the right to practice as a serious breach. As surgeon Neal Dunn testified last week, a restriction "besmirches, stains the doctor's reputation to such an extent than he can no longer apply for privileges," Dunn said.

A doctor's license, Dunn said, is a "Constitutionally-protected right."

Renee Alsobrook, deputy general counsel for DOH, countered that a license to practice medicine is a privilege granted by the state, not a Constitutional right. She said that being unable to prescribe narcotics temporarily is an inconvenience that doesn't compare to the potential harm that an over-prescriber can inflict on the public.

Costello, a dentist, said he will keep working on the issue for next year.

"We are so proud of the Surgeon General," he said. "We'll work extremely hard, do everything we can to assist him in these efforts."

--Health News Florida is an independent online publication dedicated to public-service journalism and financed by donations. Contact Carol Gentry, Editor, at 727-410-3266 or by e-mail.