The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the State of Florida continue their crackdown on illegal prescription drug trafficking. But, chronic pain patients say, they’re suffering from unintended consequences of the crackdown.
In late June, a DEA bust nicknamed Operation Pill Street Blues closed seven illegal operations across the state. One of them was the Jacksonville clinic where chronic pain patient Stephen Silva was being treated for his four spine injuries.
"Even when I have my medication, I’m in constant pain,," he says. "But when I don’t have my medicine—they have you rate your pain on a scale from 1 to 10—it’s usually up at about 9.”
Silva says, after the DEA arrested his doctor, he didn’t even know the office had been shut down until he showed up for an appointment. Then, he was left not knowing how to get his medical records so he could transfer to someone new. Finally, he got in touch with a DEA agent. He says the man told him he could pick up his records, in person, but they were no longer anywhere near Silva’s North Florida home.
“You have to pick them up out of the office that started the investigation, which happened to be Port Saint Lucie. That’s a long drive for me,” he says.
Pill mill busts have become a familiar sight over the past year, as federal, state and local agencies try to stem the illegal flow of controlled substances from Florida clinics. Drug traffickers have flocked to the state to buy prescription opioids like oxycodone. So last year, Florida enacted new laws aimed at keeping doctors from overprescribing.
But, Tallahassee nurse Elizabeth Markovich says, at least one part of that law goes too far. “We have nobody we can complain to about it, really," she says.
She says, general practitioners, like the doctors at her clinic, are no longer allowed to prescribe pain meds for longer than three months. That means pain clinics are overwhelmed by the amount of referrals they’re getting, and some patients are left without a reliable prescription or a pharmacy that would fill it.
“One lady had been struck by lightning and had a fracture in her neck and had been in chronic pain since then, and we’ve been very concerned about the fact that she can’t get any pain medicine," she says.
And that woman is not alone. Donna Ratliff, who lives in rural Hillsborough Co., runs a Facebook group for Florida patients experiencing the same lack of access to pain meds. About 100 people have joined since January. Ratliff says, she knows Florida has a real problem with pain medication abuse, but there needs to be more balance to drug enforcement.
“And it’s just choked the whole state off to where people with cancer can’t get their medication," she says.
Ratliff says, she’s led letter-writing campaigns to the Florida Department of Health, Board of Medicine, Gov. Rick Scott and other lawmakers. The responses they’ve gotten say Florida law doesn’t dictate what pharmacists can dispense. And, the letters say, legitimate patients shouldn’t be affected.