TALLAHASSEE – As part of the ongoing effort to combat Florida’s reputation as a haven for pill mills – what one law enforcement official called “Oxy-Express” — the governor’s office just issued a favorable report card for the work been done locally by Florida’s Drug Enforcement Strike Force Teams to stop the distribution and abuse of prescription drugs.
The task force was created by Gov. Rick Scott in March 2011, essentially by providing funds to local law enforcement agencies. In the past year, the governor’s office noted, the teams have taken almost half a million pills off of Florida’s streets and made 2,150 arrests related to pill mills.
That includes 34 doctors who got charged with writing illegal prescriptions.
The Strike Force Team also seized 59 vehicles, 391 weapons and $4.7 million in the past 12 months.
“These teams are accomplishing exactly what they were created for by targeting the prescription drug abuse problem at its source – the pill mills, pain clinics and unscrupulous doctors that contribute to the illegal distribution of legal prescription drugs,” Gov. Scott noted.
Before the Strike Force Team was created, Scott said, Florida had developed a national reputation as the ideal place to get prescription pills. As a result, Scott directed that $800,000 in unused grant funds be made immediately available for local law enforcement investigative efforts for local strike teams. The money was used to finance overtime pay and other expenses related to their work.
Scott also ordered agencies under his purview to support the strike force, including having the Florida Department of Health and the Agency for Health Care Administration make regulatory and licensing personnel available to assist the local teams in their work.
In April 2011, a month after the funding was released, the governor testified before Congress about Florida’s growing problem as a hotbed for prescription drug abuse, telling federal lawmakers, “Florida, like much of the nation, has a long history of criminal drug enterprises. The drugs have ruined lives and threatened the safety of our fellow citizens. Across the decades, the names of the drugs have changed, but the problem has remained.”
As the governor noted, legally prescribed drugs had become as much of a problem as illegal ones, including the illegal use of Oxycodone, a pain medication that is legal, but highly addictive.
To feed that addiction, Florida became a popular state for so-called “pill mills,” where doctors write prescriptions for pain killing medications.
The abuse of prescription drugs is considered one of the nation’s fastest growing drug problem. The Center for Drug Free Living Addictions Receiving Facility in Orlando has reported that addictions to heroin had, until recently, made up 47 percent of the patient base at this forty-bed inpatient detoxification stabilization facility, while pharmaceuticals – and that included all the pain pills – was at 50 percent. By October 2009, those numbers jumped to 83 percent for pain pills, 15 percent for heroin and 2 percent for Methadone.
It’s been estimated that pill mills can bring in $25,000 a day, and these clinics are particularly prevalent in south Florida. Some even advertise “No wait, walk in’s welcome for chronic pain” out front.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency released data last year indicating that 98 of the top 100 doctors dispensing Oxycodone nationally were in Florida, concentrated in Miami, Tampa, and Orlando, and that 126 million pills of Oxycodone are dispensed through Florida pharmacies.
“When confronted with these numbers, a serious problem is plain to see,” Scott testified.
Ninety of the nation’s top 100 Oxycodone purchasing doctors and 53 of the nation’s top 100 Oxycodone purchasing pharmacies were also located in Florida.
In the report card on the Strike Force Team’s work, Scott’s office noted that over the last year, the number of doctors at pill mills has been reduced by 85 percent, down to 13, and the number of pharmacies has fallen by 64 percent, to just 19.
The number of pain clinics in the Sunshine State has also declined, from 800 to 508.
“The strike force teams are getting drugs off our streets and saving lives,” Scott said. “We’ve sent a clear message that Florida will not be known as the state that tolerates criminal drug distribution and abuse.”
Gerald Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, noted that a report last year on drugs identified in deceased persons was actually encouraging, since it indicated that the number of deaths attributed to prescription drugs fell by nearly 8 percent compared to the same period in 2010.
“In one year, we’ve gone from being known as the ‘Oxy-Express’ to being a role model for other states dealing with this problem,” said Bailey. “We’re just getting started. Prescription drug trafficking remains a significant concern for Florida law enforcement.”
The statewide strike force works under the coordination of FDLE, and has seven regional teams, each led by a police chief and county sheriff. Winter Park Police Chief Brett Railey called this a successful way to “use all the tools in our toolbox to fight this battle. Investigating doctors, pill mills and drug trafficking organizations can often be long and costly. One important tool has been the availability of strike force funding. Many of the cases would go unaddressed without these funds.”
Another partner in this battle has been health officials from DOH. The agency’s interim Surgeon General, Dr. Steven Harris, said the agency has worked with the local teams to help root out unscrupulous doctors, pharmacies and pain clinics, since DOH “realizes the severity of this epidemic, and will help lead the fight to stop the inappropriate prescribing of highly addictive controlled substances to patients, and stop senseless deaths that come from this practice.”
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