Health department officials in Miami have a bitter pill to swallow after uncovering more than 40 licensed physicians who legally operate clinics that treat patients with chronic pain using narcotic-based prescriptions, while marketing non-narcotics for those struggling with others for pain killer addictions.
Narcotics officers in a number of states from Kentucky to Texas and throughout the Northeastern United States blame Florida for their own states’ influx of prescription drug abusers and fatal drug overdoses since federal regulation of such clinics in Florida is non-existent, thanks to a provision in state law that makes it impossible to prosecute physicians who prescribe such narcotics without a court order.
The issue that health officials face isn’t the pain clinics themselves, but the turn-style marketing tactics some use when they knowingly treat patients who suffer from legitimate chronic pain conditions with excessive amounts of narcotics and attempt to wean them off the drugs with non-narcotic replacements after they become addicts.
Dr. Bernd Wollschlaeger, an addiction specialist and past president of the Dade County Medical Association tells the Miami Herald that “offering such services is like a slap in the face.” He says some pain clinics are seeking not to help addicts but to profit from selling drugs used to curb dependency — in addition to selling large amounts of painkillers to patients who don’t necessarily need them.
Wollschlaeger calls pain clinics “pill mills,” because of their well-known reputation among drug traffickers in other states who regularly travel to South Florida with the sole intent of shopping these clinics for easy access to narcotics. The recipients then sell the drugs on streets in their home states. The Herald reports that neighboring Broward county / Ft. Lauderdale is home to two-thirds of all physicians identified by the DEA as prescribing the most Oxycodone anywhere in the United States.
The irony is that Federal officials essentially built the market for such clinics in 2002 by allowing physicians who operate pain management clinics to prescribe a drug called Suboxone, a medication commonly used to treat heroine and narcotic addiction. Its better-known alternative, Methadone, is strictly dispensed through licensed and regulated hospital-based clinical settings.
Suboxone was introduced by the Feds at a time when prescription drug abuse was increasing to almost epidemic proportions in the United Stated. The idea was to encourage more addicts to seek treatment for abuse without having to visit hospitals or traditional medical clinics for care.
The problem in Florida is lax regulation and training requirements, according to pain management experts. Unlike in other states, Florida does not require a physician to be board certified in pain management to dispense Suboxone. All it takes to open up shop is an 8-hour training session before any physician with a clean medical license and the desire can start a clinic. On the Federal level, the requirements are the same in any state, but most states have more rigorous standards for Suboxone prescribers.
“If the physician has a license to practice medicine, we don’t have the right to prevent them from prescribing Suboxone,” said Nick Reuter, a senior policy analyst with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that oversees the Suboxone certification program.