Carl Hiaasen

How many people died from opioids while Scott and Florida lawmakers coddled Big Pharma? | Opinion

Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott quashed an opioid-tracking system that could have helped save abusers’ lives.
Former Florida Gov. Rick Scott quashed an opioid-tracking system that could have helped save abusers’ lives. YouTube

As the behind-the-scenes story of America’s worst drug epidemic becomes known, a deadly starring role belongs to the Florida politicians who looked the other way while the state turned into a destination flea market for opioid buyers.

More than 5.5 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills poured into Florida between 2006 and 2012, according to data recently provided to The Washington Post by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency.

The math works out to about 42 doses annually for every Floridian. Only California suffered a bigger deluge of prescription painkillers during that stretch.

Those were the years when you could drive down any interstate in Florida and see billboards for storefront “pain management” clinics, notorious pill mills that drew thousands of out-of-state drug dealers and addicts.

By 2009, authorities counted more than 900 of these in-and-out operations, which were fueling a spike in overdoses from the Keys all the way to the Ohio Valley. “We became the pill supplier for the rest of the country,” said Dave Aronberg, a former state senator who is now Palm Beach state attorney.

“Asleep at the wheel for a decade,” is the way Aronberg described state leaders’ reaction to the crisis.

And no one was sleepier than then-Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator. Back in 2011 he sought to shut down a new state prescription-monitoring database that was designed to stop people from “doctor shopping” and to identify outlaw physicians who were overprescribing.

Scott’s concern, echoed by some other Republicans, was that the computerized opioid-tracking system was “an invasion of privacy.”

I’m not kidding. That’s what these geniuses said.

It was music to the ears of every crooked pill peddler, a profession that craves privacy above all else. Drug-enforcement officials reacted less warmly to Scott’s dealer-friendly idea, and eventually he was shamed into changing his mind.

The state’s prescription database quickly became a key weapon in shutting down sleazy pill mills. It did not, however, stop the avalanche of opiates, which were still being sold in astronomical numbers by legitimate pharmacies.

One Walgreens near Port Richey was ordering 74,706 pills a month, or about 26 doses for every man, woman and child in the city.

DEA records show that 90 percent of opioids entering Florida between 2006-2012 were distributed by Walgreens and 10 other companies, including CVS, Walmart and Publix.

Nine of every 10 pills prescribed in Florida were manufactured by four corporations: SpecGx, a subsidiary of Mallinckrodt; Actavis Pharma; Par Pharmaceutical; and Amneal Pharmaceuticals.

Those 15 total companies — and top individuals associated with them — donated $8.4 million to Florida candidates and political committees between 2006 and 2012, and have given another $12.1 million since 2013, according to a study by the Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

You don’t need a political science degree to make the connection between the pill industry’s campaign donations and the balky political response to the opioid epidemic.

Pasco County Tax Collector Mike Fasano, a GOP state lawmaker during that period, ruefully admitted to a reporter that those corporate contributions stalled legislative action that might have saved lives:

“Money was talking in Tallahassee, unfortunately as people were dying,” he said.

Money was also talking in Washington , D.C. During that seven-year period when the painkiller epidemic exploded, major drug companies rained campaign checks on Congress while flooding the country with 76 billion oxycodone and hydrocodone pills.

West Virginia, which led the nation in fatal overdoses, got enough for 66.5 pills per person annually. It was 63.3 pills per person in Kentucky, 58 per person in South Carolina and so on.

That’s how the opioid crisis spread. Once authorities finally began to crack down, desperate pill addicts turned to heroin and, more recently (and lethally), fentanyl.

Today, more than 2,000 towns, cities and counties are suing the drug makers in federal court in Cleveland. The judge in that case ordered the DEA database be made public over the objection of the Justice Department and pharma companies.

It’s an obscene story, and some of the firms have made settlement offers to avoid a trial. The wave of opioid litigation is now bigger than what hit the tobacco industry.

More than 40 states and tribal entities have also sued the drug makers and distributors for billions in damages. Among those plaintiffs is the state of Florida , where it all was allowed to begin.

Ironically, our no-longer-drowsy Legislature has passed a new law allowing the attorney general to pursue the opioid industry using information from the state’s own prescription-monitoring database.

The very same one that Rick Scott, Mr. Privacy, wanted to kill.

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