Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers eye pill mill crackdown

Tennessee and Georgia lawmakers eye pill mill crackdown

November 24th, 2011 by Joy Lukachick Smith and Kate Harrison Belz in News

Ga., State Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold

Photo by Matt Fields-Johnson

As police continue to combat prescription drug abuse across Tennessee and Georgia, lawmakers are trying to help with new laws that target a main source of the scourge -- pill mills.

"If you talk to law enforcement around the area, they'll tell you one of the biggest problems is the pill mills," said Tennessee Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, who co-sponsored a bill this year that aims to regulate pain clinics.

Clinics with lax restrictions continue to pop up across the region, writing hundreds of prescriptions at each shop for medications such as Oxycontin and Xanax, authorities say.

"Every week we get information about another pill mill that's opened up," said Brad Byerley, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's resident agent in charge of the Chattanooga office.

Byerley said his office has about 10 pain clinics they are keeping tabs on in the Chattanooga area.

Meanwhile in Georgia, pill mills grew from about 40 to nearly 90 this year, said Rick Allen, the executive director of the Georgia Drugs and Narcotics Agency.

While Georgia lawmakers have put a law in place to curb the clinics through an electronic database to monitor the prescribing and dispensing of drugs, the new database won't go online until 2013.

With previous laws, the Peach State has been more aggressive than Tennessee since authorities say many of the pill mill owners recently migrated from Florida to Georgia. The stricter laws and heavy enforcement in Florida and Georgia causes Tennessee lawmakers such as Berke to fear that dubious pain management clinics now are striking a fortune in Tennessee.

But Tennessee lawmakers said they are hopeful the new law will give the state an edge in the fight.

Starting in January, Senate Bill 1258 will make it easier for agents to target pill mills in Tennessee by requiring all pain management clinics to submit an application to the state Board of Medical Examiners for certification. The clinics are not permitted to operate on a cash-only basis, under the law, and a licensed physician must be on site 33 percent of the time.

The law also gives the state more supervisory power, with the ability to inspect the clinics and open investigations into any that have had complaints filed against them.

One feature Byerley particularly likes is that the clinic may not be owned by someone with a prior felony or misdemeanor charge related to illegally distributing drugs.

"We've seen that pattern a lot," said Byerley.

In Georgia, Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, said he plans to introduce similar legislation in next year's legislative session.

Weldon said he is meeting with physicians next week who are concerned pill mills will smudge the reputation of legitimate pain management clinics.

"It puts them in a position of having to defend themselves when they haven't done anything wrong," he said.