SEBRING — Over the last several years, detective Kimberly Gunn has handled many cases of prescription drug abuse, including deaths and illegal sales. She’s done undercover work and has seen how easy it was for people to get large quantities of drugs.
Gunn, who is with the Highlands County Sheriff’s Office, said those experiences show the importance of the state’s prescription drug monitoring database, which has helped in her efforts to curb that abuse and reduce the number of deaths by making it more difficult for people to doctor shop for the drugs without being caught.
That’s why, she said, she’s pleased that Attorney General Pam Bondi has stepped in and provided funding to keep the data base operating for another four years. That was after the Florida Legislature failed to address the funding.
“It is a tool,” she said.
According to the Associated Press, Bondi has credited the program with reducing deaths from prescription drug overdoes and the number of people obtaining drugs from multiple physicians.
During 2012, Highlands County had between seven and 13 deaths from use of oxycodone, according to a Florida Department of Health report.
Statewide, in 2012, deaths from oxycodone decreased 41 percent from 2011, the report said.
The drug monitoring database is based on pharmacists adding information about sales. From that, Gunn said, it can be determined if someone is going to multiple doctors to obtain prescription drugs, such as oxycodone and Xanax, two commonly abused substances obtained through prescriptions, as well as many others.
Highlands County doesn’t have the volume of pill mills — where doctors provide the prescription drugs without requiring a medical examination — as counties on the coast or to the south, Sheriff Susan Benton said.
“We were seeing people going to those areas and selling the drugs up here,” she said.
The monitoring program, which was originally funded by the sheriffs statewide, had a major impact in closing the pill mills, she said. And that is reducing deaths, she said.
Benton said she is happy that Bondi preserved a tool that saves lives.
Gunn said she can access the database, but only in cases where she has independent information to indicate that someone may be abusing drugs. Oftentimes, she said, she gets that information from family members concerned about another family member using drugs.
With the success in closing pill mills, Gunn said, she has seen the price on the street for oxycodone increase from $20 to $25 a pill to $30 and $35 a pill, creating a situation where dealers can earn thousands of dollars during a slow economy.
Gunn said she believes prescription drug abuse is the top substance abuse problem in Highlands County, especially considering the deaths.
“Essentially you’re carrying around legal heroin around with you if you have a prescription for oxycodone,” she said.