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Fla. governor's prescription drug plan hurts W.Va.

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Fla. governor's prescription drug plan hurts W.Va.

Picture of Alison Knezevich
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette
Saturday, February 12, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia officials say they're disappointed that Florida's governor wants to kill a planned prescription drug monitoring program in the Sunshine State, which is a destination for people who deal pills.

Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican who took office in January, didn't include funding for the project in the proposed budget he unveiled last week.

Florida's prescription drug regulations are notoriously lax. In 2009, lawmakers there approved plans for a monitoring program, which would electronically track all prescriptions filled in the state to cut down on "doctor shopping."

Police in West Virginia say it's common for people to travel to Florida to load up on prescriptions at storefront pain clinics. Flights from Huntington to Florida have been nicknamed "the Oxy Express."

"The prescription drug monitoring program would have been a great help," said Sgt. M.T. Smith of the West Virginia State Police Bureau of Criminal Investigations.

Some Florida officials might not realize the damage their state's pill mills are causing in Appalachia, he said.

"They're on the end of counting the money," he said. "We're on the end of having to repair the households ... putting kids in foster homes, trying to fix moms and dads, putting people in jails."

West Virginia has the nation's highest rate of drug overdose deaths. More than 90 percent of those deaths involve prescription drugs.

Scott's office did not return the Gazette-Mail's request for comment on Friday.

In an interview last week with the Associated Press, Scott's spokesman said the governor worries that the program would not effectively fight drug abuse and could infringe on patients' privacy rights.

"Is that a function of government, to track the activities of law-abiding people in order to track a smaller subset of criminal behavior?" the spokesman, Brian Hughes, asked.

Some Florida legislators, as well as law enforcement officials and the Florida Society of Pain Management Providers are pushing back against Scott's plans to repeal the monitoring system, according to news reports.

West Virginia and 33 other states have prescription drug monitoring programs. The Mountain State is working to link its database with other states' systems.

House of Delegates Health and Human Resources Chairman Don Perdue said he plans to introduce a legislative resolution next week urging Scott to reconsider.

"I'm going to try to get [the resolution] fast-tracked," the Wayne County Democrat said.

Last month, Stanford University psychiatry professor Keith Humphreys, an expert on drug abuse, told West Virginia lawmakers that Florida's plans to crack down on pill mills would "constrain the Flamingo Express, as the DEA calls it, and help this state."

On Friday, Humphreys said states like West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee couldn't stem the damage of illegal painkillers without Florida's help.

These states "will reap a bitter harvest of addiction and overdose" if Scott doesn't follow through with the drug monitoring program, Humphreys said in an e-mail to the Gazette-Mail.

"If Florida doesn't establish a prescription drug monitoring program, more Floridians will die from overdoses, but the stakes are even higher than that," said Humphreys, a former policy adviser at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Diverted pain medication from Florida is abused all over Appalachia. This is a national issue -- and Florida has national obligations."

Mingo County prosecutor Michael Sparks said the so-called Florida pipeline has gotten especially bad in the past year.

His area has been especially hard hit by prescription drug abuse. Last year, authorities raided several suspected pill mills there.

"Florida, in many ways, has replaced those pill mills," Sparks said. "In the last year, we've had a spike in oxycodone, and we believe that Florida is where a lot of it's coming from. Southern Florida, to be exact."

In one of Sparks' recent cases, a mother passed out after taking oxycodone and multiple Xanax "bars," which are pills with multiple doses.

"We believe [the drugs] came from Florida," he said.

The mother had put her 16-month-old daughter in a scalding bath. The toddler's legs were "literally boiled," Sparks said, and she drowned while her mother was passed out.

Scott, the Florida governor, is a former CEO of the health-care company HCA/Columbia. In the 1990s, he resigned amid an FBI investigation of the company, which later paid $1.7 billion in fines to settle charges that it defrauded Medicare, Medicaid and other federal health programs. The governor has denied knowing that fraud was taking place. He was not charged with any crime.

Reach Alison Knezevich at or 304-348-1240.