Putting Pressure on "Pill Mills"

A new state law makes it more difficult for pain clinics to operate as so-called pill mills. The prescription storefronts are a big problem in Houston and new regulation could help shut down some of the illegal operations. Laurie Johnson reports.

Houston is considered a hotbed for pill mills. The sham pain clinics offer prescription narcotics to anyone who walks in the door. People come here from Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma...all to get access to hydrocodone or Xanax. Officer John Kowal is with the Narcotics division of the Houston Police Department.

"For every emergency room visit by a person who overdoses from the regular drugs that you're familiar with — heroin, cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine — two people come into that same emergency room for the abuse or misuse of prescription drugs."

Pill mills cater to both drug abusers and drug sellers. As many as 200 of the illegal clinics operate in this area at any given time. Hydrocodone, also known as Vicodin, sells for as much as $5 a pill here in Houston and even more in rural areas.

"The doctors that were involved with these clinics were down and out doctors who were previously sanctioned by the medical board for one reason or another. They don't have any hospital privileges at any hospital here in Harris County. So it was basically doctors with lab coats selling their signature for money."

Which prompted state lawmakers to pass a bill that requires pain clinics to have state certification. Dr. C.M. Schade is a pain management specialist who works in the Dallas area. He testified on behalf of the Texas Medical Association, lobbying for the state certification.

"The regulations state that the clinics must now be owned and operated by a physician, licensed in Texas that's also in good standing with his license. It requires that the physician be present one-third of the time that clinic is open. There's also requirements for continuing medical education for the physician and staff. And it also allows the board at any time to come in and inspect the clinic."

The Texas Medical Board will enforce the regulations. Schade says the certification is required for any practice that involves a high volume, 50 percent or more, of pain prescriptions.

"It's fully anticipated that the criminals will not certify. And what this does then, it allows a very quick operation to take away the doctor's license."

They know this won't solve the problem. But Officer Kowal says instead of a lengthy undercover operation, criminal charges and trial this could be a faster, simpler option.

"We use this not to be the end-all catch-all for the prescription drug problem here in Houston, but maybe just another tool in the box. That if we're working a current investigation, we can use this in conjunction with the Texas Medical Board to shut down a clinic."

Teaching hospitals, federal clinics and surgeons won't have to be certified. Legitimate pain management clinics will. The new state law went into effect September 1st.

Laurie Johnson. KUHF News.

Bio photo of Laurie Johnson

Laurie Johnson

Local Host, All Things Considered

Laurie Johnson is the Houston host for All Things Considered at KUHF NPR for Houston. Before taking the anchor chair, she worked as a general assignments reporter at KUHF, starting there as an intern in 2002...