ATLANTA — Clinics that specialize in dispensing prescription painkillers would fall under more scrutiny under a bill House lawmakers passed Monday targeting the illegal drug trade.
The bill steps up enforcement on clinics getting most of their money by prescribing large number of narcotic painkillers to patients, sometimes addicts, for little or no medical reason. The Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, which regulates prescription drugs, estimates that the number of suspect clinics has jumped from none a few years ago to about 150 now, said agency director C. Richard Allen.
Crackdowns in neighboring states likely drove clinics to Georgia, he said.
"Georgia's in the perfect storm," he said.
The legislation, supported by Attorney General Sam Olens, passed by a vote of 124-38 and now heads to the state Senate. It would require that pain clinics get a special license if more than half of their patients are treated with powerful painkillers. The Georgia Composite Medical Board, which oversees medical professionals, would be authorized to investigate those applying for a license and could deny a license if the board felt it was not in the public interest. Only physicians would be allowed to own clinics, and those convicted of felony drug offenses would not be eligible.
"Right now, anybody off the street can go own a pain management clinic, advertise, all they have to do is hire the people to write the prescriptions," said Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, the bill sponsor. "We got these thugs and organized criminals coming from other states — and originating out of our state, for that matter — that start these pain management clinics."
Rep. Ed Setzler, R-Acworth, who was absent for the vote, said that he wanted to make sure the new legislation will keep the privacy protections that the General Assembly adopted when creating a database last year that tracks prescriptions. The new legislation allows state authorities to share information about the licensing of pain clinics. That potentially could involve information from the prescription database, Setzler said.
"I'm concerned there will be a multiyear effort ... to systematically loosen those protections year after year after year," Setzler said.
The bill is the latest in an ongoing effort to more tightly regulate pain clinics. Besides authorizing a database of prescriptions last year, Georgia medical officials have tightened the rules for doctors who prescribe narcotics.
Police said suspect clinics can be found throughout Georgia. In some cases, the owners have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to doctors who rotate through the clinics and write unusually large number of prescriptions with few, if any, medical exams. By the time law enforcement officials close in on the suspect doctors, they are gone, Allen said. Many serve large numbers of patients from Tennessee and Kentucky.
Federal officials say there is circumstantial evidence that a crackdown in Florida, once of a hub for pain clinics, has driven the trade elsewhere.
For example, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said that a database showed that 90 of the top 100 doctors who bought oxycodone for distribution in 2010 worked in Florida. After stepped up enforcement, only 13 doctors on that list the following year were from Florida. It showed 32 doctors in the top 100 were from nearby Georgia and Tennessee.