Lax Florida oversight makes it easy for users and
dealers to obtain prescriptions.
Vanessa Blum |
South Florida Sun-Sentinel, December 4, 2006
Out-of-state drug dealers and addicts are
traveling long distances to visit Florida pain
clinics, targeting the state because its lax
oversight of prescription drugs makes scoring pills
The unwanted tourism alarms state officials who have
watched deaths from prescription pain medication
skyrocket in recent years. In 2005, prescription
drugs such as hydrocodone, methadone and oxycodone
contributed to more overdose deaths than all other
narcotics combined, according to Florida medical
Despite the known dangers, Florida lacks a system
for tracking prescription drugs. That, according to
law-enforcement officials, makes it a haven for
addicts and "pill mills," where doctors churn out
prescriptions without thoroughly examining patients.
The problem was noted in a national drug threat
assessment released Nov. 15 by the U.S. Department
of Justice. The report outlined the "drug run"
phenomenon in South Florida, saying residents of
states with prescription monitoring "have in some
cases turned to traveling to nearby states . . . to
illegally obtain pharmaceuticals."
Dozens seek doses
That was the case for more than two dozen people
from Kentucky who drove 1,000 miles each way to see
doctors in Palm Beach County and Fort Lauderdale.
They came by the vanload throughout 2005 and early
2006, returning with doses of OxyContin, Endocet,
Percocet, Methadose -- drugs that were more
difficult to get at home, according to federal
Eight people involved in the trips pleaded guilty to
drug-trafficking charges in Palm Beach federal
court, and several more are being tried in Kentucky
state courts for alleged drug-related crimes.
The Fort Lauderdale medical office that supplied
some of their prescriptions also is being
Drugs prescribed by Florida doctors caused the
deaths of five people in Kentucky, according to
prosecutors. One man died from a fatal overdose
during the 18-hour drive home.
"We've seen people coming from all over the
Southeast United States," said Rick Zenuch, an agent
with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement who
monitors drug-related trends. "The fact is,
illicit-drug traffickers don't see state lines as
As of June, 32 states had adopted
prescription-tracking programs to curb problems such
as those in Florida, the most populous state without
such a law.
While each system follows slightly different rules,
the primary goal is to identify forged prescriptions
and to expose so-called doctor shoppers who visit
multiple physicians and pharmacies seeking drugs.
The programs generally require doctors to submit
information on prescriptions to a centralized
database. When an order is filled, the pharmacist
also sends an electronic record.
If a doctor or pharmacist were to notice anything
amiss in a patient's file, they could contact law
enforcement or state health officers.
Kentucky's system is a model for other
jurisdictions. Its effectiveness drove illicit-drug
seekers to surrounding states such as Indiana, Ohio,
Virginia and West Virginia. Each, in turn, created
tracking programs, said Danna Droz, a former
administrator of Kentucky's system.
In 2004, Florida's Legislature seemed poised to jump
on the bandwagon. OxyContin manufacturer Purdue
Pharma agreed to pay the state $2 million to cover
start-up costs. But key legislators blocked a vote
on the proposal, citing its annual $2.8 million
price tag and patient-privacy considerations.
Dr. Rafael Miguel, a professor of pain medicine at
the University of South Florida in Tampa, called the
inaction "infuriating and depressing."
"You have to provide Florida doctors with tools so
they can safely prescribe these medications and know
they're in the right hands," Miguel said. "Right
now, doctors are being made unwilling and unknowing
participants in the drug trade."
A similar proposal languished and died this year as
the Legislature focused on other issues. Drug
enforcers such as Bill Janes, director of the
Florida Office of Drug Control, vow to continue
their push. Janes said working with lawmakers to
pass a prescription-tracking program is his top
priority for the new legislative session.
Soon legislators may have no choice. Under a
federal law passed this year, states that do not
implement prescription tracking within three years
will take a back seat for federal funding of
A prescription-tracking system is not a cure-all,
Janes said, but could help prevent doctors and
pharmacists from unwittingly aiding addicts and drug
dealers. Moreover, if criminal activity were
suspected, police could get evidence much faster.
Maureen Barrett of Fort Lauderdale will support
those efforts. She lost her son to a painkiller
overdose in 2002 and thinks prescription monitoring
might have saved his life.
Drew Parkinson, a student at Florida Atlantic
University, received prescriptions for 1,455 pills
in 57 days. He died at 25, two days after picking up
his final doses.
"Somewhere along the line, a red flag should have
come up so they wouldn't have kept giving him the
pills," Barrett said.
Privacy concerns cited by opponents are overblown,
"If you go to CVS or Walgreens, they have a complete
list of all the medicine you've gotten," Barrett
said. "We have laws in place to make sure that
information is not disseminated."
Dr. Robert Yezierski, director of University of
Florida's Comprehensive Center for Pain Research,
isn't convinced. He said prescription tracking is "a
good idea in theory" but people who want to abuse
the system will find a way.
"What we don't want to do is deny treatment to
people who legitimately need pain medication,"
Pain relievers such as methadone and oxycodone --
both chemically altered opioids similar to heroin --
are among the most commonly abused prescription
drugs. According to a report published by the
Florida Department of Law Enforcement, methadone
caused 620 Florida deaths in 2005 -- either alone or
in combination with other drugs. The report listed
oxycodone as the cause of 340 fatal overdoses.
Used at recommended doses, oxycodone is a powerful
treatment for pain often prescribed to cancer
patients. The drug is highly addictive and dangerous
when taken in large quantities or mixed with
alcohol. Oxycodone tablets sell on the street for
about $1 per milligram -- almost 10 times what they
cost at a pharmacy.
Pills feed habits
The Kentucky group frequented clinics in Broward and
Palm Beach counties. Some pills went to feed
members' own addictions, prosecutors and law
enforcement say. Others they sold on the street or
to friends and neighbors in small towns near
Kentucky law enforcement alerted the Drug
Enforcement Administration after a number of
overdoses were linked to Florida prescriptions. The
individuals charged in federal court range in age
from 21 to 64 and face sentences of about four to
So far, no physicians have been charged in the
connection with the case.
In May, federal agents raided the offices of a Fort
Lauderdale pain clinic where some Kentucky travelers
Kentucky grandmother Jewel Padgett, 64, was among
those prescribed pills by physicians at the AMMA
Pain Care Center in Fort Lauderdale.
She pleaded guilty to four felonies connected to her
Florida trips, including conspiracy to distribute
controlled substances and traveling across state
lines to promote drug trafficking.
Government lawyers contend Padgett organized and
paid for many of the trips from Kentucky in exchange
for a portion of the others' pills, earning roughly
Padgett's son said his mother went to Florida
because she couldn't find a doctor in Kentucky
willing to treat neck and back pain caused by a 1998
"They wouldn't give her medication she needed," said
Don Padgett. "They're scared up here. They got them
Fort Lauderdale attorney Theresa Van Vliet, who
represents AMMA, said her client supports
prescription monitoring and hired a Tallahassee
lobbyist earlier this year to push the measure.
She said AMMA physicians are told to verify medical
reports before prescribing and discouraged from
treating out-of-state patients. "It's not
foolproof," Van Vliet said, "but nothing is
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune