The state’s long-debated prescription drug database opened for business Thursday, but it will be another six weeks before pharmacists and others who dispense controlled substances can access that information.
More than 100 drugs that have the potential of being abused, such as OxyContin and Xanax, are subject to the new rules. Pharmacists will have seven days to load the information into the state’s database, which will be used to target junkies and doctors who overprescribe — so-called “pill mills.” The patient receiving the drug and the doctor writing the prescription will be entered into the database.
“It’s a great idea,” said Mike Coppedge, a pharmacist at Acology Pharmacy in Cape Coral. “I’m just disappointed that we won’t have access until the middle of October.”
The state built 45 days into the program so pharmacies and dispensing practitioners would have time to familiarize themselves with the system. Also, by then a solid database of material would be available.
Legislation to establish the database was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist in 2009, but implementation was delayed because of bid disputes.
After Gov. Rick Scott was elected last November, he proposed elimination of the program. That riled everyone from law enforcement to the nation’s drug czar, Fort Myers High School graduate Gil Kerlikowske. Eventually Scott reversed his stance, leading to implementation Sept. 1.
“I have always been a supporter of this,” said Paul Sloan, president of the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers and owner of First Choice Pain Care Clinic in Fort Myers. “It is a great program … will be really, really valuable.”
Sloan said his employees have been preparing for the database to become active.
“At my clinics every patient will be checked,” Sloan said. “They have been warned and they have been told this system will catch them.”
Law enforcement officials say Florida has become one of the biggest states for prescription drug abuse. For instance, Florida leads the nation in the sale of oxycodone, with more than 400 million pills sold annually.
Abusers and dealers come here because their home state already has a drug monitoring program, observers believe.
Capt. Matt LaClair of Lee County sheriff’s special investigations, which oversees the PILS unit (pharmaceutical investigative law enforcement strategies), said Florida has continued to be a destination state for prescription drugs.
“We work with a highway interdiction team, and they’ve stopped people from Texas to Kentucky with maps of Florida pharmacies, because people know they have easier access here,” LaClair said.
Fort Myers Police Chief Doug Baker said he expects the program will be especially useful not only in ferreting out prescription fraud, but also in reducing the supply of prescription drugs, increasingly at the root of so many street-level crimes.
“And it’s safeguarded in the same way cell phone records are, in that we can’t just pull it for no reason. We have to have an open investigation and a subpoena,” Baker said.
He said Florida has a poor reputation for managing the prescription drug problem, but moving forward with steps like this — and the pain clinic moratoriums being adopted throughout the state — should help to shift that image.
In Collier, a pain clinic moratorium was approved in November. Across Lee County, similar moratoriums have been passed — Bonita Springs approved one in April, county commissioners approved one in May and Cape Coral and Fort Myers approved similar measures.
LaClair said the database will help law enforcement get timely results.
“What we currently have to go through, it takes quite a bit longer to identify the doctor shoppers because there is a lot of paperwork to get through,” he said. “This should help speed things up.”
He said law enforcement should have an idea within six months of whether the program is working as intended.
Sloan cautioned though, that this won’t fix Florida’s drug problem.
“The silver bullet is addiction treatment,” he said. “If you limit the availability of an opiate, you might see people moving to a $5 bag of heroin.”
Florida’s Department of Health estimates the annual operating cost for the drug database will be about $475,000. No state money can be used for the program, per the legislation, and so funding will come from federal and private grants and donations.
“Legitimate physicians will use the database,” Sloan said. “Illegitimate ones won’t.”