Attorneys General Take Action on Prescription Drug Abuse

The United States has been facing a public safety hazard of epic proportions – prescription drug abuse. Over the past decade, prescription drug abuse has skyrocketed – ravaging families and destroying lives. Across the nation, drug dealers in white coats have been carelessly doling out highly-addictive painkillers from street corners and strip malls. Florida and Kentucky were the epicenters of this abuse. In 2010, 98 of the top 100 dispensing physicians of oxycodone nationwide resided in Florida, and more than seven Floridians a day were dying from prescription drug abuse. In Kentucky, more people were dying of prescription drug overdoses than traffic accidents, and Florida was fueling the addiction. Florida was the beacon for addicts seeking large volumes of prescription drugs – it was considered the country’s “pill mill capital.”

Florida had weak regulatory oversight of pain management practices, limited oversight of physician dispensing habits, and no statewide Prescription Drug Monitoring Program. Drug dealers and addicts knew that they could easily travel to Florida, obtain pills, and take them back to their home states. This frequently traveled pipeline, dubbed the “oxy express,” was especially popular among Kentucky drug dealers and users. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi and Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway both recognized this dire public health crisis and the need to act swiftly.

Soon after taking office, Attorney General Bondi worked to pass legislation that provided a comprehensive plan to close pill mills and arrest unscrupulous doctors who over-prescribe narcotics. The legislation enhanced criminal and administrative penalties against doctors and clinics engaged in prescription drug trafficking; established standards of care for doctors prescribing narcotics; required registration with the Florida Department of Health; and banned doctors from dispensing the most-abused narcotics. The legislation also toughened oversight of pharmacies and wholesale distributors and strengthened the prescription drug database by speeding up the time data must be entered from 15 days to seven days. Her office now works with law enforcement throughout Florida to arrest and prosecute pill mill doctors, and these new tools greatly assist in protecting Floridians. For the first time in nearly a decade, prescription drug deaths in Florida have declined. According to the latest Medical Examiners Drugs Identified in Deceased Persons Report, Florida’s prescription drug-related deaths are down by nearly 30 percent, and none of the top 100 dispensing physicians of oxycodone reside in Florida.

While fighting Florida’s prescription drug abuse problem, Attorney General Bondi learned of another growing problem related to prescription drug abuse. In hospitals across her state, babies were being born exposed to prescription drugs and were suffering from withdrawal symptoms such as tremors, abdominal pain, incessant crying, and rapid breathing. Attorney General Bondi worked with the Florida Legislature during the 2012 legislative session to develop the Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns. The task force has examined the scope of the problem; the costs associated with caring for babies with neonatal withdrawal syndrome; the long-term effects of the syndrome; and strategies for preventing prescription drug abuse by expectant mothers.

Kentucky’s Efforts

In Kentucky, Attorney General Conway formed the Commonwealth’s first and only statewide prescription drug task force. Since its creation, the task force has been involved in more than 430 prescription drug diversion investigations, including Operation Flamingo Road, the state’s largest prescription drug bust that zeroed in on dealers utilizing the Florida pipeline. It resulted in the arrests of more than 500 people.

Attorney General Conway worked closely with Kentucky lawmakers to win passage of landmark legislation in 2012 that helps prevent the abuse and diversion of prescription pills in the Commonwealth. Since its passage, nearly half of Kentucky’s pain clinics have shut their doors and prescriptions for hydrocodone and Opana are down 20 percent and 50 percent respectively. Attorney General Conway’s office has also filed suit against Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin for misrepresenting the addictive nature of the drug to doctors and patients. A federal appeals court ruling has cleared the way for the case to be heard in Pike Circuit Court, the nexus of where Kentucky’s prescription drug problems started then spread across the state.

Attorney General Conway created the Keep Kentucky Kids Safe public education campaign to teach middle and high students about the dangers of prescription drug abuse. He’s joined at the programs by parents who’ve lost their children to prescription drug abuse. To date, he’s presented his message to more than 20,000 parents, students and teachers. The efforts are paying off. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s recent report shows that prescription drug abuse is down in all age groups in Kentucky, and for the first time, Kentucky is below the national average for prescription drug abuse.

In March 2012, Attorney General Bondi and Attorney General Conway testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee about prescription drug abuse, what each state was doing to stop it, and how they’ve worked together across party lines to tackle this problem in their states.

Attorney General Bondi discussed the new legislative tools in place to combat prescription drug abuse and the Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns Task Force, established by her office to address the frightening trend of babies being born exposed to prescription drugs. Attorney General Bondi also discussed Florida’s Regional Drug Enforcement Strike Forces, which have resulted in thousands arrests, pills seizures, and closed pill mills. Attorney General Conway talked about the success of Kentucky’s electronic prescription drug monitoring program. All doctors in Kentucky are now required to check the database before prescribing narcotics. Attorney General Conway also told lawmakers that all states need to have electronic monitoring, and it’s in the federal government’s interest to make sure information can be shared between databases across state lines.

Attorney General Conway and Attorney General Bondi are co-chairs of NAAG’s Substance Abuse Committee and moderated a panel discussion at NAAG’s Winter Meeting in February that featured U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy Director Gil Kerlikowske, a representative from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and a treatment expert. Video of that “Prescription Pill Epidemic” session can be found here: http://www.naag.org/2013-winterspring-meeting-videos.php

Thanks to the leadership of Attorney General Bondi and Attorney General Conway, Florida and Kentucky are seeing dramatic decreases in prescription drug abuse, and they both remain committed to working together to protect the citizens of their states from this serious epidemic and sharing what works in their states with other attorneys general.

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Florida Attorney General Bondi at the Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse and Newborns Meeting
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Kentucky Attorney General Conway at Keep Kentucky Safe prescription drug abuse awareness event