WASHINGTON — Florida Gov. Rick Scott reversed course Thursday and said he will allow a prescription drug monitoring program that Kentucky officials have demanded to help block the flow of illegal prescription drugs coming from the Sunshine State.
Scott's opposition to funding the database in recent months brought sharp criticism from Kentucky's congressional delegation and Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, causing the Obama administration to enter the fray.
"It is no secret Florida's pill mills have been ground zero for the illicit diversion of the drugs that are wreaking havoc in Kentucky and around the country, and I'm glad Governor Scott has finally seen the light," said U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset.
During the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing, Scott told Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., that private companies other than pharmaceuticals firms are putting up the money to fund Florida's prescription drug monitoring program for two years. Scott, along with the state's attorney general, last month launched a statewide strike force to take a law enforcement approach to fighting the problem.
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"If we have a database that I can deal with — and we're going forward with the database, it passed last year — my focus is making sure we deal with the privacy concerns," Scott said after the hearing. "There are many citizens all across our state that are very worried about their personal data being in a database, and so I'm going to be very focused on making sure I deal with those privacy concerns."
Beshear said he was "very excited and pleased" to hear Thursday that Florida is now moving ahead with a prescription-tracking database.
"This is great news for Kentucky and could save thousands of lives," he said.
Kentucky's lieutenant governor, Daniel Mongiardo, called Scott's decision "a key component in getting a handle on this problem and hopefully shutting down those clinics that are nothing more than pill dispensaries of death."
Scott and Beshear, whose states anchor either end of what's known as the "pill mill pipeline," testified Thursday on the destructive underground prescription drug network that weaves its way up from pain clinics on Florida's sunny shores to Kentucky's Appalachian mountain communities.
The governors, along with the Obama administration's drug czar and victims and survivors of pain pill abuse, told lawmakers that over the past decade, the selling and abuse of prescription drugs — especially what's known as "hillbilly heroin," or OxyContin — has grown to epic levels.
The problem is now so entrenched that the cheap flights and van rentals used by drug traffickers to travel from Florida, with its looser laws on pill distribution, to Kentucky and other states are nicknamed the "OxyContin Express."
"Let me be frank. Our people in Kentucky are dying," Beshear said. "Eighty-two people a month. More people in Kentucky die from overdoses than car wrecks."
"In the first six months of 2010, 41.2 million doses of oxycodone were prescribed in Florida, whereas the total prescribed doses of oxycodone in every other state combined was 4.8 million," Rogers said. "In other words, almost 90 percent of the oxycodone prescribed in the U.S. is ordered by Florida physicians."
Ninety-eight of the top 100 doctors in the country dispensing oxycodone are in Florida, mostly in Miami, Tampa and Orlando, Scott said.
"More is dispensed in Florida than the rest of the country combined," Scott told the panel.
It was a rare moment of unity for the two governors. Their previous ideological differences on whether Florida should implement a prescription drug monitoring program to help stem the flow of drugs led to a tense standoff.
Scott previously objected to such a program, citing privacy concerns, and turned down a $1 million donation from pharmaceutical giant Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, meant to help pay for a prescription database.
Scott insisted Thursday that he's still worried about a potential breach of security that could reveal what prescriptions people take to the public.
Beshear, whose state has long had such law enforcement and treatment programs in place and whose state's prescription drug monitoring program is the model for other programs across the country, said that in the 10 years since the program was implemented, Kentucky has never had a security breach. Kentucky's program is funded with tax dollars.
"The fact is no state is an island," Beshear said. "It doesn't have to be identical everywhere, but it does have to be everywhere for it to work."
Beshear pointed to Georgia's rural enclaves and suburbs, where prescription drug trafficking is spreading from the state's border with Florida. Late last month, Georgia's state legislature voted to enact a drug-monitoring program.
In some cases, prescriptions are being written by doctors in Georgia and filled in Alabama and South Carolina, John Horn, first assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta, said recently.
According to a study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, there was a fourfold increase nationally in treatment admissions for prescription pain pill abuse during the past decade. The increase spans every age, gender, race, ethnicity, education level, employment level and region.
The study also shows a tripling of pain pill abuse among patients who needed treatment for dependence on opioids — prescription narcotics.
Kentucky often ranks at or near the top in U.S. measures of the level of prescription pain pill abuse. As far back as 2002, a fourth of all OxyContin-related deaths in the country took place in Eastern Kentucky.
White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske, as he did during a recent tour of Appalachian areas that have been especially hard hit by the prescription drug abuse epidemic, called Thursday for a multipronged approach to the problem.
"Obviously there is no single answer to this problem, but that is a very effective tool," Beshear said. "It's proven to be very effective in this area. My goal is to have all 50 states have a monitoring system like this, because when we do it will cut down significantly on the illegal use of these drugs."