Lawmakers in Georgia have approved a system to track prescription drugs dispensed there, which could help put a dent in interstate pill trafficking that has fed drug abuse and overdose deaths in Kentucky. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the state's new prescription-monitoring program into law on Friday. That was a good step, said Boyd County Sheriff Terry Keelin.
Florida has been the leading source of pills flowing into Kentucky from outside the state, but Georgia has been a growing source of concern, Keelin said.
"It will help, absolutely," he said of a monitoring program in Georgia. "Now, how much, only time will tell."
With Georgia's law signed, there are now 35 states with monitoring systems in operation and 13 that have approved such programs but haven't put them in place, according to The Alliance of States With Prescription Monitoring Programs.
Missouri, New Hampshire and the District of Columbia have not approved systems.
Georgia officials hope to have the monitoring system in place by the start of 2013.
However, that is contingent on getting grants to fund it, said Georgia state Sen. Buddy Carter, a pharmacist who sponsored the bill.
On another front, Florida lawmakers turned back calls during this year's legislative session to repeal the state's planned prescription-monitoring system, and they increased penalties for doctors who improperly prescribe pills.
Florida's monitoring program should be up and running by mid-September, said Greg Giordano, chief legal assistant to state Sen. Mike Fasano, a Republican who sponsored the bill creating the program in 2009.
Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi said in a statement that the system will allow police to act more quickly to identify and investigate people who operate so-called "pill mills" — clinics where unscrupulous doctors issue prescriptions for cash, usually after little or no examination.
Records in various court cases indicate that addicts and traffickers by the thousands have gone from Kentucky to Florida to get prescriptions at such clinics, then brought the drugs home to sell and abuse.
People started going elsewhere for prescriptions because of enforcement in Kentucky and the state's model system for monitoring prescription drugs.
Florida has been the top destination because it had hundreds of pain clinics and no prescription-monitoring system.
But connections to Georgia have been growing, police said.
In one case, for instance, four men from the Ashland area were charged last year in an alleged massive pill-trafficking operation headed by a man in Rossville, Ga.
The organization had members and customers throughout Eastern Kentucky, East Tennessee, North Georgia and South Florida, according to a court document.
Carter, the Georgia state senator, said he pushed for a prescription-monitoring system because the state had a growing problem with pill mills.
People from Kentucky and elsewhere were starting to make their way to the unscrupulous operations, Carter said.
He said he saw that firsthand Feb. 21, a day the legislature was out of session and he was at work at one of his Savannah-area pharmacies.
A woman came in to fill three prescriptions from a nearby clinic for what he considered an exorbitant number of pills.
When Carter asked the woman for identification, she showed him a driver's license from Kentucky. She said she had come to the area specifically to see the doctor at the clinic, which the lawmaker described as a pill mill.
Carter refused to fill the prescriptions.
Frank Rapier, head of the Appalachia High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal anti-drug task force based in London, said Georgia's approval of a monitoring system is a step in the right direction.
"It's going to put added pressure on the pill clinics down there," he said.
But Rapier said that until every state has a system and they are linked, so doctors and authorities may check whether someone is shopping around for multiple prescriptions, addicts and traffickers will find the gaps and weak spots in the network.
For instance, people could try doctor-shopping for prescriptions in Missouri, one of two states that don't have a prescription-monitoring system in place or on the books, Rapier said.
"Until all the systems talk to each other, we're just going to move this problem around," Rapier said.
Officials are working on linking monitoring systems, said Dave Hopkins, head of Kentucky's system and an officer of the states' alliance.
The Kentucky and Ohio systems could begin sharing data in real time next month under a pilot project.
Hopkins said states can handle the technological challenges in sharing information, but there are other issues to work out, such as confidentiality agreements.
"We're making progress. It's just slow," he said.