Progress in Florida's fight against prescription pill abuse

Victory appeared close at hand in the battle against prescription drug abuse after the Legislature passed a law last year tightening oversight of powerful narcotic medications. Indeed, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported last week that prescription drug deaths dropped by more than 6 percent statewide in 2011.

Manatee, Sarasota and DeSoto counties -- all part of the 12th Judicial Circuit -- witnessed a greater decline with an 8.5 percent drop in the number of deaths where pharmaceuticals were found in toxicology tests of the deceased.

Statewide, Florida's seven regional drug enforcement strike forces shut down 254 pain clinics, made more than 3,300 arrests and seized almost 800,000 pills since May 2011. While all those figures are encouraging and indicate the state's crackdown on "pill mills" is heading in the right direction, the battle is far from won.

Among its many provisions, Florida's new law toughens rules for script writing, penalizes doctors for over-prescribing such controlled substances an Oxycodone and Xanax, and establishes a deadline for pharmacies to enter prescription information into the state's drug monitoring database. The law also allows law enforcement officers to check the database without a search warrant.

That electronic monitoring system was considered the key to fighting the prescription pill epidemic and prevent the practice of "doctor shopping" to obtain multiple prescriptions quickly. While businesses filling prescriptions are required to file the information, doctors and pharmacists are not required to check the database to determine if a patient is abusing the system by seeking more pills than medically necessary.

A recent Tampa Bay Times investigation found that out of the 48 million scripts written in the state since the database went live in September 2011, medical practitioners only checked on 2 percent of those prescriptions. With so few personnel accessing the system, it holds little value in this war on drugs. Lawmakers need to revisit this law and make database checks mandatory statewide.

But we're fortunate that the Manatee County Commission recognized that inherent weakness and took firm steps to close the glaring loophole.

When the state's prescription medication problem raged out of control several years ago, Manatee County ranked as one of the worst places to experience an alarming growth in the number of pill mills. Back then, out-of-state drug traffickers and addicts descended on defenseless cities, frequented unscrupulous clinics that handed out prescriptions like candy and left Florida with thousands of pills. Local residents also abused the weak system, and some lost their lives to the free-wheeling drug abuse.

The City of Bradenton led the charge against this by passing an emergency moratorium on pain management clinics in 2010, extending that year-long ban in 2011. But the moratorium expired several months ago.

County commissioners joined that fight in a slow process took too many months. Finally, though, this past March commissioners employed home rule powers to approve an ordinance that placed strict rules on prescription medications and clinics -- more restrictive than the state law.

The ordinance bans "cash-only" purchases, governs pain clinic ownership and limits clinic hours of operation. Most significantly, though, the ordinance requires physicians to check the state database before prescribing controlled substances and retain a printout of the report in a patient's file. Law enforcement officers and other county employees can inspect these printouts, too.

The City of Palmetto, which had also employed a moratorium, now operates under the county ordinance. We urge Bradenton to follow suit. The fight against prescription drug abuse cannot be won without constant vigilance.

Once again, kudos to Manatee County commissioners for taking a tougher stance than Tallahassee on a critical public health and safety issue. Shame on lawmakers for failing Floridians.