A County Takes Down Prescription 'Pill Mills' Ohio's pain management clinics come under tough new regulations Sunday. Many of the clinics are blamed for prescription drug abuse in a state where the leading cause of accidental death is unintentional drug overdose. In the south of the state, Scioto County is leading the fight against the so-called "pill mills."
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A County Takes Down Prescription 'Pill Mills'

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A County Takes Down Prescription 'Pill Mills'

A County Takes Down Prescription 'Pill Mills'

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LAURA SULLIVAN, host: We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Laura Sullivan.

There's a river town in southern Ohio that's made headlines for levels of prescription drug abuse there, and for the pain- management clinics - or pill mills - that feed those addictions. Well today, the town of Portsmouth, Ohio, strikes back. Tough new regulations are taking effect on Oxycontin and other painkillers. The goal: to finally tackle a problem that's made prescription drug overdose the leading cause of accidental death in Ohio.

NPR's Noah Adams has a story from the town that's leading the fight.

NOAH ADAMS: I had been making phone calls to Portsmouth and Scioto County, asking about the pain clinics and the changes that were coming. And the one thing the local people would always say: Anybody you talk with can tell you about a family member, a teammate, a colleague who's been in trouble. I drove into town and stopped to get a motel room. The manager checked me in and said, what's your business? I'm a journalist, I said. I'm working on a story about Oxycontin. And Sharon Smith, the manager, looked at me, and she said:

SHARON SMITH: I have an employee that will go through detox next week. She needs to get completely off of it again or she'll face jail - she'll go back to prison.

LISA ROBERTS: We sometimes see plates here from Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania. We've seen Maine. People come from all over to get pills here.

ADAMS: This is Lisa Roberts. She's a registered nurse, works for the Portsmouth City Health Department. We're parked outside one of the clinics.

ROBERTS: There's some chronic-pain patients now, going in. So they go in, and they immediately pay $200 cash - that covers the office visit - and they leave with a prescription.

ADAMS: A prescription written by a pain clinic doctor usually won't be filled in Scioto County. The local drug stores figured it out - knew the quantity of pills and the combinations could be deadly. Some of the clinics had been dispensing the drugs themselves, right on site. That's no longer the case, and so now people drive off in search of a cooperative pharmacist. Lisa Roberts, at the health department, sometimes hears about this.

ROBERTS: They'll call from three states away and say, who is this doctor, and what the heck is he doing writing this kind of stuff?

ADAMS: If you count up every pain pill that was prescribed within Scioto County, Ohio, last year - legally prescribed - you get this number: 9.7 million; 9.7 million tablets and capsules - more than 120 for every person and child in the county. The death total for drug overdose in the county last year was 22.

ROBERTS: The victims are frequently found bent over in a sitting position but bent completely over, like completely folded in two because their muscles have just been relaxed, and they stop breathing.

ADAMS: Lisa Roberts takes me to see a memorial downtown: a display in the window of an empty store. Photographs have been brought here by families of some of those who've died.

ROBERTS: This is Ryan Dickerson. He was probably 19 or so - real young. He had been given some Oxycontin from a knee surgery that he had, and he was trying to hold onto his job. He didn't want to miss any days, and he ended up becoming addicted. And he overdosed and died.

ADAMS: The crime rate in Portsmouth is way up. Police blame drugs for prostitution, theft, murder. A couple of weeks ago, the body of a young man was discovered in a manhole.

At a table in a city park, I met Frank Thompson. He's a retired high school English teacher. He wanted a way to help with the drug problem and now, to his surprise, he's become a Facebook wizard.

FRANK THOMPSON: I never thought I'd be a Facebook guy. Never. Sixty years old, you know, I'm like, nah, not going to do this.

ADAMS: Frank's friend, Lisa Roberts, had helped organize a prescription drug action team, and Facebook became their catalyst. Four thousand people get the alerts about rallies and town meetings. Barbara Howard is one of those working with the drug action team. Her daughter Leslie died of an overdose in 2009.

BARBARA HOWARD: I don't know if you're familiar with what they call sponsors - people that take you to these pain clinics, and pay for everything. They get so much of the pills back so that they can make their money back on it. And the lady took my daughter to a pain clinic, and no one here in the area would fill the prescription. So she was taken to Columbus, Ohio, to get the prescription filled, and she died that night.

ADAMS: Barbara Howard helped the drug action team push for stronger regulations, says the new state law is justice for her daughter.

When the bill came up, no lawmaker voted against it. Governor John Kasich signed it immediately. He'd been to Scioto County. Now, you have to be a doctor to own and operate a pain- management clinic. And you can't be a convicted felon and work there.

Steven Hillman, an attorney for two of the Portsmouth pain clinics, told me in a phone call that the state is putting people out of business who have committed no crime. Anticipating the changes, all the clinics have been shut down; some might find a way to re-open. Also, the state of Kentucky, out of reach of Ohio's new law, is just a 30-second bridge crossing away.

Noah Adams, NPR News.

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