Changes coming to get patients their pain meds

News4Jax instigates victims of Florida's pill mill crackdown

By Staci Spanos - Reporter/anchor, Jodi Mohrmann - Managing Editor of special projects

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Momentum is building to try and help patients who are struggling to find pharmacies that will fill their prescribed pain medication.  They consider themselves innocent victims of Florida's "Pill Mill Crackdown."

News4Jax has been investigating the problem for months and has spoken to numerous patients with documented medical conditions, who have to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to get their pain meds. Now, lawmakers and the Drug Enforcement Administration realize something has to change.

"I feel that there's no reason whatsoever that I should not get this medicine," said Joel of Jacksonville. "I

go to the doctor. I take a urine test. They determine that I'm not selling the drug, they know I'm not abusing the drug, yet, I have a problem getting it."

Joel is frustrated. News4Jax is not using his last name because he takes a prescription narcotic for a painful spinal cord condition.  He showed us his X-rays.

"The spinal cord is really good and thick there but when it hits the five vertebrae there it narrows and indents. Those are the vertebrae pinching in on it right the

re," Joel explained on his X-rays. "It's like having an internal sunburn in your arms and legs 24/7," he added.

Even though Joel's been taking four Hydrocodone pills a day for eight years to manage his pain, sometimes he still has trouble getting it from his mail-order pharmacy, the place where he's been getting his medications for years.

"I called the pharmacy and said 'What's happened?' They said, 'We've delayed you for seven days.' And I said, 'Why?' And they said, 'We have to check the database to see if you're eligible to receive this medicine'. And I said, 'What am I, a drug addict?' 'No, no, we're not saying that,'" he said.

Allison Dudley is the executive director of the Florida Board of Pharmacy. She's heard story after story just like

Joel's, and worse.  She refers to the case of 4-year-old Orlando boy Aiden Lopez, who had surgery for kidney cancer. His parents say they had to go to four pharmacies before they could get their son's prescription for pain medication filled.

The problems started in 2011, when Attorney General Pam Bondi cracked down on pill mills in the state. That, coupled with the DEA leveling multi-million dollar fines on CVS and Walgreens because of how the companies were filling narcotic prescriptions, has had an affect on pharmacists.

"There's some confusion among pharmacists about their responsibilities under federal law," explained Dudley. "Sometimes they focus on red flags. Certain red flags that they feel may make that prescription illegitimate."

To try to make it easier for legitimate pain patients like Joel to get their meds, the Board is proposing two hours of additional training for Florida pharmacists. Dudley says pharmacists are worried if they order too many narcotics, they're opening the door to a raid by the DEA or a state criminal investigation.

News4Jax asked Dudley if they feel frustrated about what's going on right now.

"They're confused. They'd like more guidance," answered Dudley.

But some believe training pharmacists may not be enough. They believe laws need to change.

News4Jax traveled to Tallahassee and found lawmakers there are starting to take notice. Many of them are getting an earful from unhappy constituents. And one state senator who represents the Jacksonville area says things have got to change.

"Four-year-olds to

104-year-olds with legitimate pain should get legitimate pain medication," said Republican State Sen. Aaron Bean, who represents District 4.

Bean chairs the Health Policy Committee in the Florida Senate. Under current state law, "A wholesale distributor must assess orders for greater than 5,000-unit doses of any one controlled substance in any one month to determine whether the purchase is reasonable."

A wholesale drug supplier must assess orders of more than 5,000 doses of any one controlled substance in one month to determine if the purchase is reasonable. Bean believes that extra scrutiny is keeping pharmacists from ordering what they need to serve all of their patients. His committee will sponsor a bill next year to get rid of that 5,000 dose limit.

Bean has a personal connection to this situation. His sister is a pharmacist.

"She tells me we can't have enough of this pain medicine in stock.  We can't have it, we want it, and we can't do it. And it breaks her heart when she turns people away," said Bean.

Bean and Dudley both Dudley acknowledge it is a complex issue, but one they are working on. Joel says that solution can't come quickly enough.

"They need to find a way to separate who's legitimate and who's not," Joel said. "Like the doctor says, 'If I write the prescription fill it.' It's as easy as that."

DEA agents spoke before the Florida Board of Pharmacy a couple of months ago. News4Jax read through the transcripts. What they said was meant to be reassuring to patients and to pharmacists. They said everyone with a legitimate need should have access to their medications. Some of their own family members have even been denied. And, they also stated that since 2011, only 3 pharmacies had their DEA registrations revoked, and over 100 had willingly surrendered them.

Ask for comment Bondi's office released a statement:

"The legislation we supported is saving lives and the 5,000 unit measure only triggers an assessment by a wholesale distributor and does not prohibit the legal distribution of pain medication."

Read News4Jax's previous investigation on the state's pill mill crackdown.

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