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PREVIOUS COVERAGE | Feds advising local cops on Manatee pain clinics

MANATEE — Federal drug enforcement agents are training local law enforcement agencies on tactics to investigate pain clinics amid a crisis of prescription pill abuse that many say has reached “epidemic” proportions in Tampa Bay.

Law enforcement officials in Manatee say they are extremely concerned about pain clinics that have cropped up across the region, dispensing prescriptions for large quantities of powerful drugs such as Oxycodone and Xanax by exploiting Florida’s lax oversight of their operations.

Raids on pain clinics this week in Tampa and Hillsborough County also put law enforcement here on alert over fears that shutting down those clinics may send the businesses and their clientele south to Manatee.

Some fear one clinic has already brought the problem here.

The clinic has been a lightning rod for controversy, first in Bradenton, before its doors closed for a move to Ellenton. There, a steady stream of customers, some with out-of-state license tags, moved in and out its doors on Friday.

When the 1910 Medical Clinic was on Manatee Avenue West, protesters began calling it a “pill mill.” Residents reported the clinic’s parking lot was jammed with vehicles from out of state, with clientele seeking prescriptions going in and out at an alarming rate.

The protests brought Bradenton City Council officials to draft a proposed moratorium on approving licensing for pain clinics in the city, which is up for a vote next week. After the protests, the clinic promptly shut it doors and moved to unincorporated Manatee, into a unit in a strip center on U.S. 301 in front of the Plantation Bay subdivision entrance just north of Haben Boulevard.

On Friday, cars with license plates from North Carolina, Tennessee, Ohio and Kentucky came and went from the parking lot, and customers all day flowed from the unit, where a sign out front reads “Medical Clinic.”

Law enforcement has surmised that addicts from the Midwest, where laws have made it tougher to get pills, are taking advantage of Florida’s lax laws, and are transporting large quantities of pills back to their home states, where each pill can sell for up to $30. At the Ellenton “Medical Clinic,” a security guard spent Friday greeting people who walked up, and customers were shuttled into a fenced waiting area.

No one at the site would comment Friday, but one man stated the office “was full.” The clinic’s Web site says no pills are dispensed at the site, only prescriptions. County officials expressed dismay that the clinic moved from the city to its current site. County Commissioner Ron Getman called the clinic a “threat” to public safety.

“It’s called displacement. The city applied enough pressure so now the problem has come our way,” Getman said. “Now we need to apply the same pressure.”

Manatee Sheriff Brad Steube said activity at the Ellenton clinic is being “monitored,” but declined to elaborate. He has also asked for commissioners to enact a moratorium on pain clinics in the county. Steube said like most communities in Florida, Manatee is seeing an “epidemic” of prescription pill abuse.

“It’s a huge problem that keeps getting bigger and bigger as we go,” Steube said.

Statistics back that claim, with Oxycodone overdoses alone in the 12th Circuit — which is comprised of Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties — skyrocketing from 2008 to 2009, according to the latest report released by the circuit’s medical examiner.

The report said overdoses on the drug increased 68 percent, from 16 to 27, in the first six months of 2009, compared to the same time frame in 2008.

Bradenton Police Chief Michael Radzilowski said his agency sought training from U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials on combating “pill mills” because state laws provide little teeth, and making cases that will stand up in court is time-consuming and difficult.

Officials with sheriff’s offices in both Manatee and Sarasota counties also have met with DEA officials concerning pain clinics and prescription pill abuse.

“We are certainly concerned and want to get out in front of this as much as we can,” Radzilowski said. “These investigations are extremely complex and expensive.”

In an e-mail sent to county commissioners on May 7 calling for a moratorium on pain clinics, Steube presented similar measures to commissioners that have been enacted in Pinellas, Palm Beach and Martin counties as a way to guide the process. Sarasota commissioners are also considering a moratorium.

Steube referenced “pill mills” in the e-mail as a possible contributor to overdose deaths and arrests associated with prescription drugs in Manatee County.

“Law enforcement are certainly aware of these ‘pain clinics.’ Through intelligence information we attempt to link the arrests and deaths mentioned to the pill mills in an attempt to bring criminal charges,” Steube wrote.

“This is a difficult task. Because of the difficulty of making that link, we are suggesting that something preventative be put in to place on the front end of this problem,” the e-mail continued.

Commissioner Larry Bustle said he has received a report on activity at the Ellenton clinic from law enforcement, and is not happy with what he has seen.

Bustle says he would support a moratorium on pain clinics in the county. But he also acknowledges that state law holds little to deal with existing problems. New legislation that Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to sign would take effect Oct. 1, placing tighter restrictions on the dispensing of prescriptions.

Until then, there is concern.

“The report I received showed it literally to be a mill where they are giving out prescriptions,” Bustle said of the Ellenton clinic. “Ethically and morally it is a big problem as far as I’m concerned. Doctors first and foremost take an oath not to do harm. That is now what’s happening here.”

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