More than 2,500 people per year, about seven people every day, die from prescription painkiller abuse in the state of Florida.
The state has a national reputation for lax oversight of pain pill distribution. In an effort to turn that reputation around, state lawmakers enacted a prescription drugs law, creating tough regulations for doctors. So tough, some doctors have stopped prescribing narcotics all together.
The law took effect July 1st, mandating stricter rules for doctors who prescribe and dispense pain medication, requiring them to register and file a number of forms and obtain pain clinic credentials. Some doctors opted not to do that, leaving many patients who truly need the prescription medicine jumping through hoops to deal with their pain.
Mary Lou Lyles and her husband Stefan take prescribed controlled substances every day.
"If we can't get our prescriptions, we would end up in the hospital," said Mary Lou. She suffers from depression, anxiety disorder and PTSD. When she moved to Defuniak Springs from Oregon five years ago, she spent months searching for the right doctor.
"We finally found after numerous times, a great doctor, Niceville family practice, who was willing to prescribe our medications that me and my husband both need in order to stay healthy," said Mary Lou Lyles.
But a few months ago, the Lyles learned they'd have to begin that search again. Dr. Marianna Post at Niceville Clinic would no longer prescribe them their medication It was a choice Dr. Post made after learning about the new state regulations. She has referred more than one-hundred patients to clinics.
"Generally, it was kind of very vague what we need to do as a pain clinic, what would be the rules and so we decided not to go along as a pain clinic," said Dr. Post.
Under the new law, physicians who prescribe controlled substances for chronic, nonmalignant pain, have to label themselves as pain specialists.
"Why would I need to register for a pain clinic if I’m not a pain specialist?," said Dr. Post.
Post says it's a fear common amongst physicians.
"There are very few doctors who are actually willing to prescribe narcotics because it’s been so hard on doctors. There have been a lot of doctors who have been accused and sued for prescribing narcotics so a lot of doctors are actually afraid to do so," said Post.
But in the end, it leaves patients struggling to deal with their pain.
"They're going from doctor to doctor to doctor and unable to get any help. And for us, it’s been very frustrating because I need to tell those patients, I’m sorry I can't help. I can refer you to a pain specialist but I’m not sure pain specialist is going to give you your medication," said Dr. Post.
Many were caught off-guard by the transition and have gone long periods of time without their medicine. Mary Lou considers herself lucky; she went only four days without her medication. But she says lawmakers need to take a second look.
"The people that put this law into place, they might have had good intentions but they did not look into the whole picture. There are other people that take medications that are controlled substances that need them in order to survive and do well in this world," said Mary Lou Lyles.
Dr. Post can still prescribe narcotics to cancer and rheumatoid arthritis patients but must refer anyone else to a pain specialist.
We wanted to ask Attorney General Pam Bondi whether the law has gone too far, but she declined our request for an interview.