For the second time, a bill that could bring pain management clinics — and suspected "pill mills" — under state regulation is awaiting action in Georgia's Senate.
The Georgia Pain Management Clinic Act, which overwhelmingly passed the House, would require all pain management clinics to be licensed through the state. Georgia is one of the few states where such clinics are not licensed or closely regulated, making it a growing hot spot for pill mills.
"It's the Wild West here," said bill sponsor Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold. "We don't have any laws to manage who owns these places or how they get monitored. Any criminal can own a pain management clinic. And they do here."
Weldon tried to push a nearly identical law last year, but a vote was never called as the legislative session ended in a flurry.
"I'm ready to run this over the line," he said. "We need to get it to the governor's desk so we can get these crooks out of this state."
The main difference with the new bill is that the current version includes a stipulation that all clinics must be owned fully by physicians.
"Only those who have dedicated their life to providing health care -- those who have committed the most to their education and licensing, those who have something besides profit at stake -- those are the ones we believe we can trust most to operate pain management clinics in the state of Georgia," Weldon said.
Clinics operating before the June 30 deadline would be grandfathered in under the law, but operators still would have to comply with a long list of new regulations including biennial state licensing, employee background checks and reporting requirements.
Rick Allen, director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency, said that if the bill is passed it will bring Georgia to "middle of the road" status for legal oversight.
"That will run off the vast majority of these rogue pain clinics -- the ones coming up out of Texas or Florida. We've found many owned by people tied to organized crime and drug use," he said.
Many elements of Georgia's law were modeled on Tennessee pill mill laws passed in 2011.
Allen said he has been watching and waiting to see if a committee would take up the bill.
"If anything, I think -- I hope -- the Senate will make it even tougher," he said.
But Allen said he is trying to keep his expectations loose about the bill's outcome.
"When it comes to the Legislature, I've learned that it's never over till it's over," he said.