White House drug czar: Florida needs pill-monitoring system

bestep@herald-leader.comFebruary 24, 2011 

The nation's drug czar said he hopes Florida Gov. Rick Scott will see the benefit of having a prescription-monitoring system in his state, which authorities say would help reduce the flood of pills from Florida to Kentucky and other states.

Even as Gil Kerlikowske, director of national drug control policy, visited Kentucky on Wednesday on a tour highlighting prescription-drug abuse, police raided South Florida pain clinics accused of helping illegally dispense huge numbers of pills that ended up in Kentucky and elsewhere.

Some officials said the raids underscore the need for Florida to have a system to monitor prescriptions — a system Scott wants to scrap.

"I hope that these incidents encourage Gov. Rick Scott to back down from his proposal to repeal Florida's (monitoring) law, a program desperately needed to stop the flow of illegal prescription drugs from Florida to Kentucky," said U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers, a Republican who represents Kentucky's 5th District.

Speaking in Lexington, Kerlikowske also said he would like to see Florida put a prescription-monitoring system in place.

He said he has offered to meet with Scott to provide information about the benefits of such systems.

Doctors can use such computerized systems to make sure patients aren't going to several physicians seeking drugs, and police can use them to investigate people diverting legal prescription drugs for illegal sales.

"It's a good tool," Kerlikowske said.

It has become routine for people from Kentucky and other states to visit Florida pain clinics for prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety pills, then sell and abuse the pills.

Florida became a magnet for pill seekers because it has hundreds of pain clinics — some of them unscrupulous, cash-only operations where doctors don't do real exams — and no system to monitor pills dispensed in the state.

The legislature has approved such a system, but Scott, a Republican, wants to repeal it before it's started.

Authorities say pills from Florida play a key role in overdose deaths in Kentucky and other states and feed addiction that fuels other crimes.

"The proliferation of rogue 'pill mill' operations has caused massive harm to citizens in Florida, throughout the Southeast, and across our nation," Kerlikowske said.

There were at least five doctors among the suspects federal and local police began rounding up Wednesday after a yearlong undercover investigation of alleged pill mills in three South Florida counties.

One federal indictment charged that six people operated a network of clinics that dispensed 660,000 units of oxycodone through five clinics between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2010.

Prosecutors in that case seek forfeiture of more than $22 million in cash and real estate and a list of 49 vehicles and boats, including Lambor ghini sports cars, a Bentley convertible and several Mercedes-Benzes.

Scott vowed this week not to back down. He called such a prescription-tracking system an invasion of privacy.

However, the directors of monitoring systems in Kentucky and Ohio said Wednesday that the people who have access to information in the systems, such as doctors, pharmacists and police, already have access to people's medical records.

More than 30 states have such systems, but there is a need for a national approach to make sure addicts and traffickers don't chase pills in states that don't have them, many officials argue.

"We absolutely need a seamless, national system," U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, a Democrat who represents Central Kentucky, said during Kerlikowske's visit to Lexington.

Chandler helped push Kentucky's monitoring system, considered a national model, to fruition in the late 1990s.

Kentucky and Ohio will soon kick off a pilot program to let prescribers in each state have access to the data from the other's system, so they could see whether people are crossing the state line to get other prescriptions.

Officials hope that project, which Indiana also is set to join, will spread.

"We are creating a national network of prescription-monitoring programs so that we don't need a national database," said Dana Droz, who helped start Kentucky's system and now heads the one in Ohio.

Kerlikowske is on a tour of Kentucky and West Virginia this week to bring more attention to the issue of prescription drug abuse and to learn about local efforts to fight it.

He took part in a discussion at the University of Kentucky on Wednesday that included presentations on how various groups are working together in education and prevention efforts.

UK has a program called Health Education through Extension Leadership that uses its extension agents in each county to improve health.

The program links university research, faculty and staff with community needs and resources. Prescription abuse is one issue it has focused on.

"If we all work together we can start to make a dent in this problem," said Jeanne Davis, an administrator in the extension program.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell earmarked money for the program.

There has been a focus on prescription abuse in Eastern Kentucky, but authorities said they have seen increasing abuse in Central and Northern Kentucky the past few years.

"It is killing people," said U.S. Attorney Kerry B. Harvey. "It's the biggest problem we need to focus on."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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