Florida's new governor wants to eliminate a prescription-tracking system that Kentucky authorities believed would help cut the flood of pills coming into the state from Florida.
The proposal has set off alarm bells and anger in Kentucky.
"Everyone up here, law enforcement, feels like we've been kicked in the teeth," said Frank Rapier, director of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, based in London. "To take a step back like this is incredible."
Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo, a physician, said he doesn't think Florida Gov. Rick Scott understands the deadly impact pills flowing from unscrupulous clinics in the Sunshine State are having elsewhere.
"I'm infuriated," by Scott's move, Mongiardo said Thursday.
"What they're doing by this is basically setting up billboards across the country saying, 'Come to Florida and get your drugs,'" Mongiardo said. "Unfortunately, the end result is people dying."
It has become commonplace the last few years for car loads of people from Kentucky, particularly the eastern end of the state, to go to other states seeking prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety pills — such as OxyContin, Percocet and Xanax — and then sell or abuse the drugs in Kentucky.
One reason addicts and drug traffickers do so is that Kentucky has a model system to track prescriptions. Doctors can use it to make sure a person is not trying to get prescriptions from several different sources, and police can use it to investigate diversion of pills to illegal sales.
Florida has been a key destination for people from Kentucky and other states seeking pills because it has hundreds of pain clinics — some of them cash-only operations where doctors allegedly do little real treatment — and because it had no system to track prescriptions.
Raids on clinics in Florida have turned up files on hundreds of people from Kentucky, and Florida had essentially become the pill mill for Appalachia and the East Cost, police have said.
In 2009, Florida lawmakers approved the creation of a prescription-monitoring system that officials said could begin operating this year. However, Scott, a Republican, included language to eliminate the program in his proposed budget this week.
That is just a proposal, which the legislature could override.
Florida state Sen. Mike Fasano, a New Port Richey Republican who sponsored the bill creating the monitoring program, has vowed to fight the move to eliminate the computerized tracking system, said his chief legal assistant, Greg Giordano.
"He's extremely disappointed that the governor has made this proposal," Giordano said of Fasano.
Scott's office did not respond to a question Thursday about why he wanted to do away with the monitoring program.
Florida is facing a steep budget shortfall, but the monitoring system, set up mostly with federal money, would cost only $500,000 a year to run, said Bruce Grant, former head of Florida's Office of Drug Control.
Florida has not put any money into the monitoring system, and the goal was to fund it with federal grants and donations, supporters said.
Abolishing the system would not save any state money, Giordano said.
Grant said a spokesman for Scott had been quoted saying Scott didn't think it was appropriate for the government to be involved in the monitoring program.
Grant pointed out that most other states have seen fit to adopt such a program, however.
Police and others in Kentucky had applauded the creation of a prescription-monitoring program in Florida, saying it would help shut down the Florida-to-Kentucky pipeline.
"We thought we'd be able to write Florida off the list" and start dealing with Georgia and other states without monitoring programs, Rapier said.
Among other things, the system would have made it easier for police in Kentucky and other states to identify people going to Florida to get pills, several officers said.
Dave Gilbert, director of the Lake Cumberland Area Drug Task Force, estimated that at least 60 percent of the prescription pills diverted to illegal sales in the area come from Florida.
"It is a daily occurrence of car loads of people driving south on I-75 to Florida pain clinics," Gilbert said.
The average person who goes from the area to Florida brings back 180 pain pills and 90 Xanax tablets, worth a total of well over $10,000 on the street, Gilbert said.
"It's crazy" to not have a system in place in Florida to help stop that, he said.
The pills flowing out of Florida contribute to overdose deaths in Kentucky, authorities said.
Earlier this week, when police stopped a car driving erratically on I-75 in Madison County, they found Lisa Rogers, 42, of Mount Sterling, dead in the back seat.
Rogers was with others who had been to Florida to get pills, said state police Trooper Chris Lanham. Police are investigating her death as an overdose.
"It's a huge problem," he said.