TAMPA -- U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder was in Florida on Friday to announce the federal government’s latest crackdown on unscrupulous doctors and others who illegally write pill prescriptions to drug addicts in exchange for cash.
Florida has become known as the nation’s epicenter for prescription drug abuse because of its “pill mill” pain clinics that write the prescriptions with scant assessment or care of a patient’s condition. The state is so well-known among drug users from the north who visit to buy drugs the “route” even has a moniker: “the Oxy express,” named after OxyContin, one of the most powerful and desirable narcotics.
Holder, along with Middle District U.S. Attorney Robert O’Neill, Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart and more than a dozen state and local officials from around central Florida, gathered Friday to announce the arrests of 22 people on charges of illegal prescription drug distribution. Among those arrested: five doctors and two pharmacists. Fifteen others were indicted in a conspiracy to illegally obtain controlled substances in the Tampa area and transport them to Kentucky for distribution.
The 22 were arrested Friday in Orlando and Tampa in the sweep, which was dubbed “Operation Pill Nation II,” after a similar effort in South Florida earlier this year. A detective with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office played a role in one of the arrests, according to Lt. Anthony Carr. No other details were available on the case.
“The days of easily acquiring these drugs from corrupt doctors and pharmacists is coming to an end,” Holder said, adding that a law enforcement task force to combat pill mills will be added in Orlando.
There are already similar programs in Miami and Tampa.
Holder said that in 2010, there were 53 million OxyCodone pills purchased by medical practitioners nationwide -- and 85 percent of those pills were purchased by practitioners in Florida.
State Attorney General Pam Bondi said that the prescription pill problem isn’t confined to those who sell and use the medicine. Babies of addicts are also affected, she said, adding that about 30 percent of the babies in one Tampa area-neonatal intensive care unit are born addicted to prescription opiates and need morphine in their first few days of life.
O’Neill assured that while federal authorities are cracking down on those who sell and acquire the pills illegally, the patients who really need pain medicine for a legitimate illness will get the drugs.
“A legitimate patient going to a legitimate doctor has nothing to worry about,” he said.
-- Paradise Afshar, Herald crime reporter, contributed to this report.