Federal prosecutors in Georgia are ramping up investigations into so-called "pill mills" that supply deadly painkillers and other prescription medications to drug dealers and addicts, as Georgia lawmakers move closer to approving a new crackdown on the suppliers.
U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said recently that her office has opened investigations into several businesses following a rise in complaints. Prosecutors worry that Georgia is becoming a refuge for the mills now that other states, including Florida, have adopted enforcement measures such as electronic prescription-tracking systems.
"We feel like we have to attack this problem on all angles," she said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We're certainly expecting prosecutions in this area, but enforcement alone won't do it. We have to focus on this as a public safety issue to prevent it from happening in the first place."
Georgia is one of seven states that has yet to authorize a prescription database, and the only state in the South that hasn't done so, according to the Alliance of States with Prescription Monitoring Programs. Efforts over the years to create a database in Georgia have failed amid privacy concerns, but this year brings new hope to the program's advocates.
The Georgia Senate voted 49-6 last week to create the database, which the bill's sponsor, Republican state Sen. Buddy Carter, called an effective tool to help flag discrepancies and alert authorities to any potential abuse.
Typically such databases allow doctors, pharmacists and police to identify patients who go from one doctor to another looking for multiple prescriptions for the same drug. The systems can also help authorities track doctors and pharmacists who repeatedly dispense painkillers to abusers.
To allay privacy concerns, the Georgia measure requires law enforcement agencies to provide a subpoena to get the information. It also would impose fines and prison time on those who illegally access or misuse information from the database. A similar proposal is pending in the Georgia House.
"With no effective way to track signs of illegally prescribed drugs, Georgia is quickly becoming a haven for so-called pill mills and drug abusers from our state and from other states who already have this measure in place," said Carter, a Pooler pharmacist.
The unscrupulous doctor's offices known as pill mills have long frustrated federal authorities. They commonly accept only cash payments, refuse to take appointments and don't keep any medical records, officials say. Many do cursory medical examinations _ if they do them at all _ before prescribing patients excessive doses of addictive medications.
A federal indictment released last week in Florida exposed some of the most common tactics. It said a network of pill mills trolled the Internet for prospective patients using some 1,600 domain names that captured searches for pain medication. They required patients to pay at least $250 in cash for a first visit and hundreds more to fast-track the paperwork for prescriptions.
An undercover Drug Enforcement Administration officer who visited one of the clinics only needed to complain of vague pain and get a cursory medical examination before getting prescriptions for the powerful drugs. Later, an employee said: "Any questions? All right. Let's get this party started!"
South Florida is acknowledged as the national epicenter for illegal dispensing of prescription drugs, but authorities in Georgia worry that crackdowns there and elsewhere could send the industry across the state line. They say some of the drugs are bought by traffickers who quickly resell them for a profit on the streets of Ohio, Tennessee and elsewhere.
"We've already seen a movement from Florida to Georgia," said Yates. "We've already seen pain clinics move in this direction. It's really acted as a magnet for pill mills and addicts coming from all areas. We see license plates from all over _ they are driving here, getting strong drugs, and then getting back on our roads."
Yates said more than 500 people died in Georgia last year due to prescription drug overdoses. That's more than six times the number of people who died in the state on all other drug abuses combined.
Much of the nation has already embraced prescription drug tracking systems, widely acknowledged as one of the best tools to crack down on abuses. Some 43 states and one territory have passed legislation authorizing the database, and 34 already have the systems up and running, according to the alliance.
Some states, including Ohio, specifically decided to authorize a database after surrounding states did the same, said Chris Baumgartner, a program director with the alliance. He said the state was "seeing an increase in abuse and diversion from people trying to avoid being caught" in a neighboring state.
Yates, meanwhile, has organized a summit on Wednesday to highlight the growth of prescription drug abuse and addiction in Georgia. The summit will include federal investigators, medical experts and legitimate pain clinic physicians to address ways to reverse the trend.
"There's an impression that because these drugs are available by prescription, they're not as dangerous or addictive," Yates said. "And that's absolutely false."