Fla. painkiller industry flourishes, supplies nation

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism, and he has blogged for Covering Health ever since.

The Miami Herald‘s Scott Hiaasen delved into South Florida’s massive painkiller industry, one which, enabled by loose laws and lax oversight, supplies a massive underground distribution network reaching throughout the South and New England. According to Hiaasen, pills flow by the thousands every day through an ever-growing number of clinics offering drugs and prescriptions to walk-in patients at strip malls and nondescript office parks.

In the last six months of 2008, doctors at Broward’s pain clinics handed out more than 6.5 million pills of the potent painkiller oxycodone — almost four pills for every Broward resident, according to federal data compiled by the Broward Sheriff’s Office.

Among Hiaasen’s findings:

  • 45 South Florida doctors sold nearly nine million oxycodone pills in the last six months of 2008.
  • 33 of the top 50 oxycodone-dispensing doctors in the United States practice in Broward County.
  • The number of pain clinics in South Florida grew from 60 to 150 in the past year, the DEA estimates.
  • Overdose deaths in Florida caused by oxycodone rose from 340 in 2005 to 705 in 2007.

In a companion story, Hiaasen looks at the other end of the prescription painkiller pipeline: rural Appalachia.

”We’re inundated with it. Florida is killing us,” said Sheriff Bill Lewis of Lewis County, Ky., population 14,000. “There’s a carload that leaves here so often — hell, every week or so — to go to Florida.”

In February, Lewis’ deputies arrested four people returning to Kentucky with almost 1,000 painkillers prescribed by Florida doctors. And last Thursday, they arrested a suspected oxycodone trafficker carrying the business card of a Hollywood pain doctor in his wallet.

Florida is the largest of the 12 states without a prescription drug monitoring plan, a fact some local lawmakers call “embarrassing.”

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