WASHINGTON -- Gov. Rick Scott’s decision to drop his opposition to a prescription drug monitoring database drew plaudits Thursday from Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, who had personally urged Scott to change his mind.
Scott and Beshear -- whose states bookend what’s known as the “pill mill pipeline” -- testified before a House committee on the destructive underground prescription drug network that flourishes in Florida, and is “destroying lives” in Kentucky, Beshear said.
“Obviously there is no single answer to this problem, but that is a very effective tool,” Beshear said of the drug database. “It’s proven to be very effective.”
The southern governors, along with the Obama administration’s drug czar and victims and survivors of pain pill abuse, told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing 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 drug traffickers use to travel from Florida, with its looser laws on pill distribution, to Kentucky and other states are nicknamed the “OxyContin Express.”
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“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.”
Scott acknowledged a “serious problem,” noting that 98 of the top 100 doctors in the country dispensing oxycodone are in Florida, mostly in Miami, Tampa and Orlando.
“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 start a prescription drug monitoring program aimed at stemming the flow of drugs drew members of Congress from both states and the Obama administration into the fray. Scott had objected to the database, citing privacy concerns. He turned down a $1 million donation from Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, to fund a database.
He said Thursday that the state will start a database, but he reiterated that he believes the databases pose a “serious risk” to law-abiding individuals.
“My focus is making sure we deal with the privacy concerns,” Scott told reporters 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.”
Scott said he believes the state will have better success dealing with the “top of the distribution chain -- instead of the bottom.
He said law enforcement in the form of a Statewide Drug Strike Force will pursue pharmaceutical manufacturers and wholesalers who permit “massive amounts of narcotics” to stream into Florida, along with “unscrupulous doctors” who work with “storefront pill mills masquerading as legitimate health clinics.
“Each of these levels provides an opportunity for law enforcement to intervene and stop the illegal flow of drugs into our communities,” he said.
Kentucky has long had law enforcement and treatment programs in place, and a state prescription drug monitoring program is considered a model for other programs across the country. In the 10 years since the program was implemented, Kentucky has never had a security lapse, Beshear told lawmakers.
Kentucky’s program is funded with taxpayer dollars; Florida’s will be paid using federal dollars and private contributions -- but not from the drug industry, Scott said.
Beshear said he hopes for registries in all 50 states.
“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, said John Horn, first assistant U.S. attorney in Atlanta.
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, 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.