State Politics

State Senate decides to help attorney general make opioid case against drug companies

The Florida Legislature on Friday decided to allow Attorney General Ashley Moody to access a state drug database to make her potentially multi-billion dollar case against the nation’s largest drug makers and distributors.

The unanimous decision in the Senate now allows Moody to better make her case that drug companies recklessly prescribed opioids to Floridians. It heads to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ desk for approval, and he’s already said he would sign it.

The House had unanimously passed the bill on Monday. But in the Senate, lawmakers had buried it, citing vague patient privacy concerns.

Others, however, felt the concerns were merely an excuse to protect the big companies being sued. Over the last 20 years, nine of the companies have given more than $1 million to state lawmakers, the vast majority of it going to Republicans.

Behind the scenes, some of those companies, such as the pharmacy giant Walgreens, were lobbying against the bill.

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On Friday, several senators, including Democratic Minority Leader Audrey Gibson of Jacksonville, who had voted against it, clarified that they were now comfortable with the bill, then voted 39-0 to pass it.

State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Thonotosassa, frustrated by his colleagues’ vague concerns about patient privacy, made sure to note that the Senate should have passed it much earlier.

“There are people who believe that corporations in this state should be immune — immune — from liability,” he said. “There isn’t an act they can perform that should result in any liability.”

He praised Rep. Chris Sprowls, R-Palm Harbor, for driving the bill through the House.

“Unlike others, who would have liked to see this bill die, he stepped forward and put his legal energy and his experience to work to try to overcome the objections that had been raised,” Lee said.

On Monday, the House passed it on a 111-0 vote, but senators were still resistant to take it up.

“At that point, senators, there was no reason not to take this bill up,” Lee said.

If the bill failed, it would have been a major win for Walgreens and the other companies being sued, including Purdue Pharma, the maker of Oxycontin.

Moody’s predecessor, Pam Bondi, filed suit against the companies last year, joining dozens of other states that have claimed the companies recklessly prescribed opioids to Americans.

However, those companies have tried to quash the case by arguing that Moody’s office had no data supporting her argument.

Florida has the data, in the form of a prescription drug database that tracks prescriptions for serious drugs, from Oxycodone to sleeping pills. But Moody was not allowed under Florida law to use the data for her civil case against the drug companies.

The bill lawmakers passed would give her access to the database, with strong privacy protections. She would not get patients’ names, dates of birth, sex or addresses.

Moody, who met with nearly every senator in the last two weeks, said she had to correct a lot of “misinformation” they had about the bill.

And although the bill further strengthened privacy protections the last few weeks, she said the bill protected people’s privacy from the beginning.

But she thanked them and Senate President Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, for their support.

“I’m glad they didn’t send me into battle with one hand tied behind my back,” she said.

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