Pill mill bill becomes law

New legislation signed into law last week by Gov. Nathan Deal will help the state crack down on unscrupulous pain clinics known as “pill mills” that supply drug-addicted patients with prescription narcotics.

The legislation, which goes into effect July 1, requires pain clinics to be licensed by the state medical board and to renew their license every two years. All new clinics must be doctor-owned, and employees must pass a criminal background check.

HB 178 also enables the Georgia Composite Medical Board to create standards for continuing education and training for clinic owners and healthcare professionals.

Previously, pain clinics in Georgia were unregulated. Even convicted felons and those with no healthcare background could own them.

A similar law passed in Florida in 2011 resulted in a significant drop in the overprescribing of prescription painkillers such as oxycodone, according to Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, who made the so-called “pill mill bill” the centerpiece of his 2013 legislative agenda.

“(Florida) went from having 90 of the top 100 sellers of oxycodone in the nation to having less than 10 in a year, according to the DEA,” Olens said. “So these laws have an effect. The charlatans leave.”

Hospital-owned clinics do not have to be licensed, unless they are outpatient clinics and they treat more than half of their patients for pain from nonterminal illness.

Prescription drug abuse causes or contributes to the overdose deaths of 11 Georgians every week. Nationally, the number of prescription drug-related overdoses has surpassed deaths caused by automobile crashes.

The pill mill bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, and in the House by Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, survived attempts by lawmakers in both chambers to weaken it by allowing others besides doctors to own pain management clinics.

Olens said that was a huge victory, because authorities in Florida found that the problem clinics were the ones owned by investors with no background in healthcare.

An investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in February found that numerous pain clinics were owned by convicted felons, and many of the owners came from Florida fleeing that state’s ramped up enforcement efforts. For example, William Benton and his business partner Malcolm Dwayne Garrett, relocated to Georgia in 2011 after their two clinics in Fort Lauderdale came under heat, according to DeKalb County prosecutors.

The two men opened a clinic in Chamblee, which they later relocated to Sandy Springs. Prosecutors allege the owners made millions selling oxycodone to clients from as far away as Texas and Ohio. Benton and Garrett were indicted in November 2011 on racketeering charges in DeKalb County. They have pleaded not guilty and are awaiting trial.

Clinics not owned by doctors that were already in business before the law took effect will be grandfathered in. However, those clinics will still be subject to the new regulations and their license can be revoked for failing to abide by them.