"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. But, chronic pain sufferers are having a hard time getting their prescriptions filled, and they say the anti-drug crackdown has gone too far.
Suzanne is a nurse who lives in Naples, Fla. In 2000, she was driving to work when she was rear-ended by a meat-packing truck. She had spinal surgery for her injury, but a complication has left her in chronic pain that makes it nearly impossible to walk without medication.
“You have no idea how much I wish I never had to take anything," she says. "I’ve been through withdrawal twice since I’ve lived here because I couldn’t get my medicine filled.”
She says, she gets her prescriptions from a licensed pain management clinic that does random urinalysis on patients to ensure they’re not abusing their meds. But, about five months ago, her regular pharmacy stopped carrying her pain medication, at least unofficially.
“They would just keep telling me, ‘Oh, we haven’t gotten that medicine in,’" she says. "And, mind you, for the two years I’ve lived here, I’ve always had my prescriptions filled at CVS pharmacy.”
Suzanne says it takes a combination of meds for her to function normally. One of them is the painkiller oxycodone, which is one of several synthetic opiates that fetch huge profits on the black market. In one raid last month, drug enforcement agents busted a South Florida operation that had bought 19,000 oxycodone pills in one year, to resell.
But, patients like Suzanne wonder where the pills are for them. She says, after her local CVS repeatedly turned her away, she started filling her prescription through the the CVS mail-order system instead. That was working—until this week, she says—when the mail-order pharmacy suddenly terminated her oxycodone prescription. She doesn't know what to do next.
“I’m so tired of fighting every month so that I can have a life. It’s unbearable anymore. I’m to the point where I just want to leave this stupid state because I’m tired of being treated like a drug addict when I’ve done nothing wrong," she says.
Every day in Florida, about eight people die from prescription drug overdose, the Centers for Disease Control says. And from 2003 to 2009, the number of oxycodone overdoses in Florida increased by 265 percent. At the same time, pill mills were proliferating. Doctors in these clinics would prescribe opioids, without asking many questions, and often filled the prescriptions on site. Drug traffickers from all over the country continue flocking to Florida to hop from illegal clinic to illegal clinic and return home with huge supplies. So, State Attorney General Pam Bondi has made pill mills a top priority.
Last year, she told Fox News: “These are drug dealers wearing white coats. They have armed guards at the door. They’re a cash-only business. I’ve been in them. I went in them in Fort Lauderdale, and they are a horrible place, and we are shutting them down.”
In March of 2011, Bondi and Fla. Gov. Rick Scott announced a statewide Drug Strike Force to address the issue. Florida passed a law prohibiting doctors from directly dispensing painkillers. And the state started a database where doctors must report whom they prescribe to, to prevent addicts and traffickers from so called “doctor shopping.” And the efforts are getting results. Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokesman Keith Kameg says the strike force has closed 254 pill mills and arrested about 3,000 people, including 46 doctors.
“It shouldn’t be so easy that you can go on every corner and get meds," he says. "We haven’t had many reports, if any, of people being turned away for legitimate needs. What we’re trying to stop there are illegal needs.”
Paul Sloan owns two licensed pain management clinics in South Florida. He says real patients are suffering.
“I am just beside myself dealing with patients who can’t get their medications," he says.
Sloan says, in its effort to reduce the number of pills sold in Florida, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration is intimidating people at every step of the drug supply chain. Last year, DEA agents raided two CVS stores in Sanford and suspended the license of their Lakeland-based distributor, because of the size of their oxycodone order.
“There isn’t a doctor, a pharmacist or a wholesaler that is in Florida that is not terrified of the Drug Enforcement Administration," he says.
And pain patients like John Gibson, who lives in Wakulla Co., say they are the unintended victims of the crackdown. Gibson contracted an infection while volunteering to help Hurricane Katrina victims; it's left him in chronic pain. He says, he filed a complaint with the Florida health department when several pharmacists wouldn’t fill his pain med prescriptions.
“They weren’t at the doctor’s office when I took off my shoes and showed them my scars and showed them my deformed toes," he says.
Hillsborough Co. patient Donna Ratliff sent a similar complaint and got the following response in a letter from Florida Board of Medicine Executive Director Joy Tootle: “State law does not limit the amount of pain medications a pharmacy may stock or dispense. In addition, state law does not specify how pharmacists may decide to dispense the medications.”
Suzanne, the nurse from Naples with chronic back pain, says she feels she’s running out of options. She asked that her last name not be used because she's afraid the stigma attached to pain meds might keep hospitals from hiring her.
"And I’m not giving that up. I’m not going to go on disability," she says. "But again, if I don’t have pain medication, I am disabled.”
Like all the patients who spoke to Florida Public Radio, she says she hopes drug enforcement agents can find a happy medium between stopping drug abuse and allowing legitimate patients to get the meds they need.