Florida must not back away from implementing a monitoring system to help cut the flow of pills from its pain clinics that are feeding addiction and death in Kentucky and other states, U.S. Rep. Harold Rogers has told Florida's governor.
In a strongly worded letter, Rogers told Republican Gov. Rick Scott that Florida has become a key source of illegally diverted pills for Appalachia and the entire East Coast.
"Governor, your state, more than any other, must take this crisis seriously," Rogers told Scott in the letter released Friday.
State monitoring programs, such as the one Florida has approved but not implemented, help combat diversion of pills at a time when abuse of prescription drugs is the fastest-growing drug problem in the country, Rogers said.
Rogers said he was "alarmed and dismayed" at reports indicating Scott wants to repeal Florida's monitoring program.
"On behalf of my constituents, who continue to suffer from out-of-control and escalating prescription drug diversion originating from your state, I respectfully ask that you reverse your position on the value of and unquestionable need for" the monitoring system, Rogers said. "Now is not the time to back down from this life or death challenge."
Rogers, a Republican who chairs the powerful House Appropriations Committee, represents the 5th District in Southern and Eastern Kentucky, where abuse of prescription drugs has been described as an epidemic.
Rogers has been active in trying to combat the problem, creating Operation UNITE in 2003 to fund drug investigations, treatment and education in his district.
A national program that provides money for state prescription-monitoring programs also is named for him.
Florida has become a source for diverted pharmaceuticals because it has hundreds of pain clinics and no system to track the prescriptions people fill.
Rogers noted that in 2009, 98 of the top 100 prescribers of the painkiller oxycodone were from Florida and that they wrote prescriptions for 19 million dose units of the drug.
It has become commonplace the last few years for carloads of people from Kentucky, particularly the eastern end of the state, to go to Florida to get prescriptions for pain and anti-anxiety pills such as OxyContin, Percocet and Xanax, then sell or abuse the drugs in Kentucky.
In raids on Florida clinics, police have found files on hundreds of people from Kentucky.
Just last week, a Mount Sterling woman who police said had been to Florida with companions to get pills died in the back seat of a car on Interstate 75 as they returned. Police suspect she died of an overdose.
Rogers told Scott that when federal drug czar Gil Kerlikowske tours Kentucky next week to survey the state's crippling prescription-drug problem, "I can tell you that he will find that our problems begin in the Sunshine State."
"The notion of canceling Florida's (program) is equal to firing firefighters while your house is ablaze; it neither makes sense nor addresses an urgent crisis," Rogers said.
Police say one reason people started leaving Kentucky in droves for prescriptions is that the state has a model prescription-tracking system. Kentucky doctors can use the system to make sure people have not been to multiple physicians, and police can use it to investigate drug diversion.
More than 40 states have monitoring systems in place or have approved them.
Florida lawmakers approved a prescription-monitoring system in 2009.
The system was supposed to be up and running December 2010, but a bid dispute has delayed the start-up.
After Scott took office in January, he included language that could cancel the program in a proposed budget bill.
The move caused alarm and anger in Kentucky.
Police said it would be a setback in the fight to cut the pill pipeline coming out of Florida, and Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo said the move was essentially an invitation to people to come to Florida for drugs.
"Who's he protecting, that's the question," Mongiardo said Friday.
Mongiardo said Gov. Steve Beshear also is concerned and hopes to talk with Scott at an upcoming national conference.
Scott's office told the Herald-Leader in a statement that he is committed to working with his state's attorney general and police to protect public safety.
However, "Governor Scott is not convinced that it is a good use of taxpayer money to spend $1 million to build, and hundreds of thousands more every year to operate, a database that allows the government to track private citizens and their medical prescriptions when the problem truly lies with the criminals who illegally prescribe and obtain prescription drugs," said the statement.
The statement shows that Scott's office does not fully understand how the monitoring system is funded, said Greg Giordano, chief legal assistant to Florida state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican who pushed passage of the monitoring-system law.
The law barred use of any state money to set up or operate the program, Giordano said.
A foundation received $800,000 in federal money from the program named for Rogers, and about $500,000 in private donations, to put it in place.
Fasano commends Scott for wanting to protect public safety, but that's exactly what the monitoring program is designed to accomplish by helping track down the people who over-prescribe and abuse drugs, Giordano said.
Fasano has vowed to fight Scott's effort to cancel the monitoring program.
The head of the state Senate has said he supports the program, giving supporters more confidence the legislature will reject Scott's move to do away with it, Giordano said.
Rogers said he understands the financial pressures facing Florida, but said putting a monitoring system in place warrants sacrifices elsewhere if needed.
Rogers also addressed the privacy issue Scott's statement raised.
All prescription-monitoring programs have strict guidelines limiting who has access to the data in the systems, Rogers said.
"Some have wrongly suggested that patient privacy could be compromised and have used this as an unfounded distraction," Rogers told Scott.