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Published on - Nov. 14, 2011
Pinellas County extends moratorium on pain clinics
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This chart shows the alarming increase of babies born addicted to prescription drugs from 2005 to 2010. The blue line on top shows the number of newborns in Pinellas County going through withdrawn due to drug-addicted mothers. The green represents Pasco County and Hillsborough County is red.
CLEARWATER – Officials say it is a problem out of control. Prescription medications now are the street drug of choice in some states and fingers are pointing at Florida.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, Florida doctors and pharmacies purchased 1.1 billion oxycodone pills in the past two years. Florida is known as the OxyExpress, and officials say Tampa is the hub for the pill mills.

Oxycodone addiction is the problem that heroin was in the 1970s. The number of crack babies born in the United States these days pales in comparison to the growing number of those born by mothers addicted to prescription drugs.

The situation is alarming in Pinellas County, where the number of drug-addicted newborns increased by almost 600 percent since 2005. The county now is No. 1 in the state for its high number of infants born to woman addicted to prescription drugs.

After listening to a report on the situation from Tim Burns, director of Justice and Consumer Services, county commissioners agreed unanimously Nov. 8 to extend the countywide moratorium on pain clinics until 60 days after the conclusion of the state legislative session set to begin in January.

Burns said deaths from accidental overdoses of prescription drugs have outpaced those from heroin in the 1970s and crack cocaine in the 1980s. Drug deaths outnumbered traffic fatalities in the United States in 2009, killing 37,485 people. Statewide, the Florida Medical Examiners Commission reported an 8.9 percent increase in deaths caused by prescription drugs from 2009 to 2010.

Pinellas County has its own noteworthy numbers. In 2010, 249 people died as the result of prescription drug use, up from 218 in 2009. In comparison, only 17 died from illicit drugs in 2010 and 19 in 2009. From January to October of this year, Pinellas County emergency medical services received 2,055 reports of overdoses from prescription drugs.

The problem is having a big effect on the county’s youth. From December 2010 to September 2011, 229 children were removed from their home due to prescription drug abuse. From July 2010 to June 2011, 1,507 individuals were treated for prescription drugs in Pinellas and Pasco counties, according to Central Florida Behavioral Health Data. Seventy-one of those individuals were children and 1,157 of 1,507 were treated for addictions to oxycodone.

County commissioners put a moratorium on new pain management clinics in place June 7, 2010, or until the state implemented a program to monitor prescription drugs. Since that time, the state has passed laws that Burns said were “good steps,” including funding the database to track clinics registered with the state and prescription drug use. In addition, clinics can no longer dispense drugs onsite.

But the state needs to do more, Burns said. A loophole in the system that focuses monitoring on clinics by the title of the doctor or the practice versus the activity – drug dealing – needs to be closed. He explained that the problem is not pain management clinics, but high prescribing.

“We’re trying to prevent the pill mills,” he said.

He presented a list of critical needs the state still needs to address, including recognition of the impact and excessive cost of prescription drug abuse – addictions and pill mills.

Burns reported some success in countywide efforts to combat the problem – thanks to the 2010 ordinance and moratorium. Twelve locations were closed, three citations issued and three warnings. Seven locations were advised not to open as a pain clinic.

However, the county needs to do more – at least until the state can implement changes to its laws and programs that local officials say are critical to combatting the problem.

Burns said the sheriff’s office had been working very hard on the problem, but enforcement continued to be a problem. He advocated proposed amendments to the county’s ordinance to help law enforcement, as well as county staff.

One change is the title, which is now Prescription Management. The old title was High Prescribing Clinics. References to “pain management” were amended to say “high prescribing” health care providers.

The clinics still are required to submit an application to do business in the county. The annual fee is $1,500 and the permit is $250. Hours of operation were extended to include Sundays. High prescribing clinics can only operate between the hours of 7 a.m. and 9 p.m. The clinic must provide ample parking and it must not generate traffic that would interfere with the normal flow.

High prescribing clinics must educate their patients on the dangers and proper use of prescription drugs. They must ask female patients if they are pregnant prior to prescribing medications and provide education about the danger of taking drugs while pregnant. Clinics are required to do a patient assessment prior to prescribing to determine possible addiction and mental health needs.

Commissioners unanimously approved all amendments except the one to rescind the moratorium on new pain clinics. After hearing the latest information on the problem and staff’s perspective on the need for more from the state, Commissioner Karen Seel suggested continuing the moratorium currently in place.

“This is a horrible, horrible problem,” she said. “It is an epidemic among our newborns.”
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