TALLAHASSEE — More than anywhere else, health care practitioners from Hillsborough County tap into a new statewide database designed to track sales and fight Florida’s prescription drug abuse problem.
Yet Hillsborough doesn’t contribute a penny toward operation of the system, known as the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program or PDMP.
Hillsborough-based doctors, pharmacists and others have queried the database more than a half-million times since its creation. The database receives no regular state funding and relies on grants and contributions, which so far come from just a handful of local governments and sheriff’s offices across the state, according to documents obtained by The Tampa Tribune from the state Department of Health.
The idea is for doctors and pharmacists to check the database voluntarily and quickly spot bogus patients who visit a succession of doctors for drugs. The result has been fewer crimes and less work for law enforcement.
Health care practitioners are required to report to the database within seven days of prescribing or providing a controlled substance.
Only eight of Florida’s 67 counties were represented in the $113,000 worth of government contributions in 2011-12 to operate the drug database.
The sheriff’s offices in Pinellas and Hernando counties gave $20,000 each – the only agencies in the Tampa Bay area to do so. Pinellas is the fifth most frequent user, with more than 360,000 queries, and Hernando is 21st, with about 73,000.
So far, the federal government has been the database’s biggest benefactor.
A call to Hillsborough government officials wasn’t returned Monday, but Hillsborough Sheriff’s Col. Donna Lusczynski said her office wasn’t aware it had been solicited for a donation.
Lusczynski said the office “recognize(s) the severity of the drug problem,” but would be concerned about making a contribution over the long term without a dedicated funding source of its own.
State law prohibits the database from getting state money or donations from pharmaceutical companies.
State lawmakers have returned to the Capitol this week to prepare for the 2014 legislative session. House and Senate health committees plan to discuss the database on Tuesday, including recent security breaches that drew the ire of civil-rights groups.
The state’s prescription drug abuse problem and the pain clinics known as “pill mills” that have fueled it are found in communities across the state. In recent years, Florida had become a hub of abuse, particularly of painkillers from pill mills.
The high use of the database from within Hillsborough County, Florida’s fourth-most populous, indicates the problem has been especially prevalent here.
Proponents of the database point to state Medical Examiner’s records as proof the database is making a difference. There were 215 fewer deaths from oxycodone overdoses in the first half of 2012 compared to the first half of 2011, a 35 percent decrease.
Financial information was gleaned from The Florida PDMP Foundation’s most recently available Form 990, the report that the Internal Revenue Service requires from tax-exempt nonprofits. Information for 2012-13 is not yet available.
The foundation was created to raise funds for the program because state lawmakers refused to fund it, though they recently relented and gave it a one-time infusion of $500,000.
Former state Rep. Mike Fasano, the New Port Richey Republican who championed the database’s creation in 2009, tied sluggish fundraising to the recent recession. He sits on the foundation’s board.
In fact, the organization reported it had raised no funds in 2010-11.
“It’s been tough for our counties and law enforcement agencies to keep their heads above water,” said Fasano, now Pasco County’s tax collector. “I can’t blame them; they’ve been struggling like everyone else. We go and ask and if they have the dollars, they’ll help.”
This year, Fasano introduced legislation to require doctors and pharmacists to check the system before writing prescriptions, but physicians’ groups fought it, saying that would put too much of a burden on busy caregivers. It takes about 30 seconds to check a patient’s prescription history in the database, Fasano said.
“I can tell you we’ll be approaching fundraising much more aggressively,” he added.
The foundation’s treasurer, Boca Raton attorney Brian Kahan, said the board is now interviewing candidates for an executive director, who’ll focus on fundraising.
The foundation “solicits funds from agencies across all 67 counties in Florida throughout a variety of means including letter writing campaigns (and) personal outreach efforts,” said Ashley Carr, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health, which oversees the database.
“While all 67 counties are asked for funds, as with all fundraising efforts, certain donors choose to give more generously and repeat their donation efforts,” Carr said in a statement. “The foundation’s members will continue to explore additional fundraising opportunities moving forward.”
The Tribune also contacted governments and sheriff’s offices that were reported as contributors.
Seminole Sheriff Don Eslinger, for example, gave $20,000 from forfeiture funds – with his county commission’s approval – after receiving a letter from the foundation, according to a spokeswoman.
Foundation treasurer Kahan said in an email that former Broward Sheriff Al Lamberti led an effort within the Florida Sheriffs Association and Florida Police Chiefs Association to solicit funds from their memberships.
“There was no predetermined amount requested from each agency,” Kahan said.
Lamberti was defeated last year by current Sheriff Scott Israel. Sarasota Sheriff Tom Knight now is leading fundraising efforts until an executive director is hired, Kahan said.
The Health Department’s website shows that the database received more than $1.4 million in federal grants through the U.S. Justice Department from 2010 to 2012.
Another $46,000 in grants from the National Association of State Controlled Substance Authorities have been “used to create a website, to purchase office equipment and to purchase promotional items,” the website said.
Earlier this year, private information from thousands of patients – including addresses, birthdays and medication dosages – leaked from the system as part of a Volusia County criminal probe.
Many of the patients weren’t linked to the investigation but their information ended up in the hands of defense lawyers.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida complained, and the Department of Health has held hearings aimed at better safeguarding confidentiality.