Attorney General Pam Bondi has launched her re-election advertising campaign with a major milestone in Florida law enforcement: The death of the state’s infamous "pill mills."
In a Sept. 8 TV commercial, the incumbent touts her record of overseeing the demise of rampant prescription drug abuse enabled by Florida doctors.
"With our amazing law enforcement, we closed down the pill mills," Bondi said. "Of the top 100 oxycodone-dispensing doctors in this country, 98 of them lived in Florida. Today, there are none."
That statistic implies Bondi was tough on crime, but PolitiFact Florida wanted to know if it was accurate.
Closing the clinics
The pill mill epidemic was a nationwide problem in 2010, driven by doctors who would write prescriptions and sell drugs out of clinics they owned themselves.
Florida’s lax laws gave the Sunshine State a reputation for easy access to the drug, so much so that billboards advertised to "narco tourists" -- buyers from out of state who would come to Florida to buy the drug. With more than 1,000 pain clinics in operation across the state, Florida became known as the "Oxy Express."
Bondi, who was elected in 2010, was a staunch supporter of HB 7095, a 2011 law that increased penalties for doctors who abused prescription privileges, banned them from prescribing drugs like oxycodone and strengthened state regulatory power over prescription pill trafficking. The bill passed both houses of the Legislature unanimously on May 6, 2011, and was signed by Gov. Rick Scott on June 3, 2011.
Bondi’s camp told PolitiFact Florida the stat in the commercial came from the Statewide Task Force on Prescription Drug Abuse & Newborns 2014 Progress Report, which specifically dealt with the effects of opiate abuse by pregnant women on their children. The report credited changes in Florida law that shut down many clinics.
"In 2010, 98 of the top 100 oxycodone pill dispensing physicians nationally resided in Florida," the report read. "In 2011, after the passage of HB 7095, only 13 of the top 100 resided in Florida, and by the end of 2012, not one Florida doctor appeared on the top 100 list."
The report, which used figures that also were widely reported by the media, cited U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration data accessed January 2013. Bondi’s office also gave us a DEA press release from April 5, 2013, to back up that claim -- although that release said "90 of the top 100 oxycodone purchasing physicians in the nation were located in Florida."
When we asked the attorney general’s office why there was a discrepancy in the numbers, they insisted the number was 98. The DEA stood firm, however: In 2010, the number was 90 of the top 100 oxycodone-purchasing doctors. The federal agency also told us the number of doctors in Florida in 2011, after HB 7095 passed, was down to 10 and not 13.
But wait, Bondi’s commercial says "oxycodone-dispensing doctors," not "purchasing," as the DEA measured in 2010. That’s because the 2011 law no longer allowed physicians to simply buy the drug to resell, DEA public information officer Mia Ro told PolitiFact Florida.
"When the Florida law changed, it prevented physicians from dispensing pills out of their clinics," Ro said. The agency doesn’t track "what’s filled or prescribed," she said. That means the DEA numbers weren’t tracking whether or not actual abuse had happened, just that Florida doctors were buying lots of oxycodone.
Some physicians are still allowed to buy hydrocodone in large quantities, Ro said -- emergency room personnel, for example -- but private doctors could no longer buy the drug and sell it on their own. There was one unnamed DEA registrant from Florida who was in the top 100 oxycodone buyers in 2014, Ro said: A purchaser for a fleet of cruise ships, to use the drug in the fleet’s sick bays.
That’s not to say pill mills weren’t a problem, or that the 2011 law didn’t make a difference.
By the time HB 7095 was enacted, it was estimated as many as 11 people per day were dying from prescription drug abuse. From 2010 to 2012, overdose deaths from prescription drugs, illicit drugs and alcohol dropped nearly 17 percent, and overall prescription drug fatalities fell 23 percent, according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report. About 52 percent of that decrease was in deaths from oxycodone.
Bondi said that of the top 100 oxycodone-dispensing doctors, 98 were in Florida, and "today, there are none."
She cited DEA numbers that since 2010, the number of physicians who dispensed the most oxycodone in the nation and also lived in Florida had dropped from 98 of the top 100 to zero.
The DEA told us there are a few problems with that stat.
First, it was for the biggest purchasers of oxycodone, not dispensers -- the DEA said the list didn't track dispensation. Second, the number in 2010 was 90 and not 98, although the 98 figure was widely reported by the state and the media in the past few years. Third, in 2014 there was one top 100 oxycodone purchaser in Florida, a buyer for a cruise ship fleet.
The DEA data only tracks top purchasers, not whether actual drug use decreased, but other sources confirmed oxycodone abuse is on a downward trend in the state, although there’s debate over whether a 2011 law Bondi supported is the sole factor.
While the specifics are a bit off, the gist and context of what Bondi is saying is accurate: There are no more Florida pill mill doctors in the DEA’s top 100. We rate the statement Mostly True.