published Monday, March 12th, 2012

State and local governments in Georgia trying to rein in pill mills

Georgia Pain Management Clinic Act


This legislation has passed the House and is in a Senate subcommittee. If approved and signed into law, it would require:

• All pain management clinics must be licensed by the Georgia Composite Medical Board.

• Must renew their licenses twice a year.

• Clinics must be owned by physicians licensed by the state.

• The medical board may establish minimum standards of continuing medical education.

• After an application is filed, the medical board may conduct a thorough investigation of the applicant.

Source: Georgia Pain Management Clinic Act

When a suspected pill mill opened in Ringgold, Ga., a month ago, Catoosa County officials scrambled to pass an ordinance that would limit how pills could be prescribed to the public.

Officials said they feared that out-of-state drug abusers would flock to the area for oxycodone, hydrocodone and Xanax from the pill mills, which often call themselves pain management clinics.

“It’s a good thing we’re doing whatever we can to protect our youth and the county as well,” said Keith Greene, chairman of the Catoosa County Commission, which passed the law.

At least five other Georgia cities, including Kennesaw and Smyrna, have passed ordinances to curb an influx of businesses that are suspected to be pill mills — clinics with lax restrictions that prescribe large doses of painkillers.

The Catoosa County Commission put a six-month moratorium on new pain management clinics and passed an ordinance that classifies them as both prescribing and dispensing pain medicine onsite. The ordinance also requires the names of everyone with a financial interest in the clinic and whether they have any felony convictions.

At a meeting tonight, the Ringgold City Council is set to vote on a similar ordinance.

Georgia drug experts estimate there are nearly 150 pill mills across the state. Rogue clinics are major contributors to prescription pill abuse, a huge problem in the state.

“Prescription pills have become the No. 1 problem,” said Lookout Mountain Judicial Drug Task Force Deputy Commander Patrick Doyle. “It’s overtaking methamphetamine.”

While local ordinances are helpful, Georgia legislators say they finally have written a bill that could regulate the clinics at the state level, driving those operating outside the law from the state.

The Georgia Pain Management Clinic Act — which passed the House and is in a Senate subcommittee — would require all pain management clinics to be licensed through the Georgia Composite Medical Board. Currently, the clinics are not licensed at all, making it difficult for the medical board to regulate or control them.

“It addresses the problems of those folks, thugs and criminals and ... stops them from having an interest” in running a clinic, said Rep. Tom Weldon, R-Ringgold, who is sponsoring the bill.

Weldon said he also supports local governments in his district passing their own ordinances to stop the scourge.

But other officials aren’t convinced more regulation is the answer.

A year ago, local police and federal agents raided a Fort Oglethorpe weight-loss clinic and arrested a physician on charges of writing illegal prescriptions for painkillers.

Despite having a bust occur in his city, Fort Oglethorpe City Manager Ron Goulart isn’t sold on the idea of passing a local ordinance to regulate the clinics.

“I think you’ve got to be really, really careful ... to start thinking you can regulate the practice of medicine,” Goulart said. “I’m not so sure that local governments like counties and cities can.”

But Weldon argues that hospitals, home health care agencies and hospice-care facilities won’t be affected by the regulations.

Tennessee passed similar legislation last year requiring all pain management clinics to submit an application to the state Board of Medical Examiners for certification. Under the law, the clinics are not permitted to operate on a cash-only basis — which many pill mills do — and a licensed physician must be on site at least 33 percent of the time.

The law, which went into effect in January, is already starting to show some signs of success, and law enforcement is seeing fewer pill mills in the area, said Brad Byerley, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s resident agent in charge of the Chattanooga office.

“[But] we’re going to need more time to see how well it will help,” he said.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

about Tim Omarzu...

Tim Omarzu covers education for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California.

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