Legislation targeting ‘pill mills’ clears Georgia House

A bill that would tighten restrictions on who owns a pain clinic passed the state House of Representatives on Wednesday, a development that backers say will advance the fight against “pill mills” that are fueling an epidemic of addiction to prescription drugs.

Pill mills are pain clinics that routinely prescribe a high volume of the most addictive prescription drugs to people who have no legitimate medical use for them. These medications include pain relievers such as oxycodone.

Drug dealers and addicts flock to these clinics from hundreds of miles away.

Georgia allows convicted felons to own pain clinics. House Bill 178 would prevent this and require all future clinics be owned by physicians licensed in this state.

During House debate, Majority Whip Edward Lindsey said the legislation would save lives.

“By God we have to have it, or we’re going to see our state further sink down the hole and we’re going to see more people in your community and my community die,” said Lindsey, a Republican from Atlanta.

The legislation passed 150-15. It must clear the Senate before it becomes law.

The vote comes after an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution found that despite efforts to toughen pain clinic laws, legislators have failed to pass provisions that experts have known to be effective in other states.

Florida is known as the nation’s current pill mill capital, but law enforcement officials have warned for years that clinics are moving to Georgia to take advantage of the state’s lax laws.

The bill faced opposition from lawmakers concerned that it’s too restrictive.

“I’m still trying to understand why one has to be a doctor to be an upstanding person that would run a clinic in the right way,” said state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, who voted against the bill.

HB 178 affects clinics where greater than 50 percent of patients are being treated for chronic pain. The state medical board would license them.

Physicians who have been barred from dispensing controlled substances or who have been sanctioned by the state’s licensing board as a result of drug or alcohol addiction would also be blocked from clinic ownership.

Before Wednesday’s vote, the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tom Weldon, described how unscrupulous clinics accept cash only and post bouncers at their doors. Patients can receive the opiates oxycodone and hydrocodone, and the anti-anxiety medication Xanax in just 10 minutes.

“They call it the Georgia cocktail,” said Weldon, a Republican from Ringold.

The bill does not alter a 2011 law that established the state’s prescription drug database, which is slated to launch in the coming months. It will track those who prescribe, dispense and buy pain pills and other addictive medications.

The database is unfunded and may run out of money as early as this fall. Critics say law enforcement cannot use it to identify possible pill mills.

Weldon joined forces with state Sen. Buddy Carter, R-Pooler, last year to pass legislation restricting pain clinic ownership. It cleared both houses of the General Assembly but died on the last day of the session before both chambers could agree on reconciliation.

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