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Lee credits Sprowls for saving opioid bill



Gov. Ron DeSantis has already said he intends to sign the bill, which
Walgreens and others in the drug industry have quietly lobbied against.
AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli

TALLAHASSEE — In the final weeks of session, Rep. Chris Sprowls rescued a floundering measure that could bring in roughly a billion dollars to fight the state’s opioid crisis.

Sprowls, an attorney and likely next speaker of the House, assuaged privacy concerns related to a bill FL HB1253 (19R) that would allow Attorney General Ashley Moody to access certain patient information in a state drug database. After unease about the bill surfaced a few weeks ago, it wasn’t evident the measure would pass in the Senate.

Today it did, clearing the upper chamber on a 39-0 vote after Sprowls, a Republican from Palm Harbor, jumped in with an amendment to sunset the provision in 2021. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said he’ll sign the bill into law.

“He stepped forward and put his legal energy and his experience to work to try to overcome the objections,” said state Sen. Tom Lee (R-Thonotosassa), the bill sponsor, on the Senate floor Friday. “He got that bill out of the House and down here to the Senate.”

Gov. Ron DeSantis has already said he intends to sign the bill, which Walgreens and others in the drug industry have quietly lobbied against.

“There are people who believe that corporations in this state should be immune,” Lee said.

With the bill’s passage, Moody will have patient-level access to certain information in the drug database beginning in July. She intends to use the information to make a legal case against the pharmacies Walgreens and CVS, the drug manufacturer Purdue Pharmaceuticals, and other companies named in Florida’s opioid lawsuit.

The case has the potential to bring in a billion dollars for drug treatment programs related to the epidemic, which kills 17 people a day in Florida.

Since taking office in January, DeSantis has pointed to Oklahoma’s $270 million settlement, saying Florida should expect one that’s much larger, given the size of the state and the scope of its opioid problem.

On Thursday, DeSantis said the drug database bill would help deliver Florida’s settlement.

“These companies knew that this stuff was very addictive and yet you see the way they conducted themselves,” said DeSantis Thursday in Brevard County. “Purdue Pharmaceutical is just one of them. But, certainly, that is one that is likely going to have to pay the piper, not only here, but throughout the country.”

William Large, president of the Florida Justice Reform Institute, which is funded by business interests, has been the bill’s most vocal opponent. Large doesn’t represent Walgreens but a member of his board works for the company.

Large’s organization lobbies to limit large legal settlements in cases brought against corporate interests. He acknowledges his group speaks for companies that don't want to publicly clash with Moody, a Republican Cabinet member, but he said he fought the bill because it was the right thing to do.

“While we obtained several important concessions, we remain concerned that the bill makes a bad problem worse," Large said in a statement Friday.

Large said he believes Moody is going after Walgreens and CVS because they have deep pockets, not because of their roles, if any, in the opioid crisis. He said individual doctors aren’t named as defendants in the state’s complaint because they’re not worth pursuing financially.

With patient-level information from the state’s drug database, Moody wants to prove that Walgreens and CVS, which own more than 1500 pharmacies across the state, knew they were filling too many prescriptions for an addictive substance and had a responsibility to intervene, but didn’t out of financial greed.

In his remarks on the floor, Lee thanked Moody for explaining the bill’s importance to wary lawmakers. He also thanked Senate President Bill Galvano and Rules Chair Lizbeth Benacquisto for “breaking this bill loose and letting it to be heard on this floor.”

Galvano on April 19 told POLITICO he had doubts about the bill’s ability to protect patients’ personal information. Benacquisto, who didn’t comment for that story, refused to hear it in her final Rules Committee on April 23, even though Lee had been requesting a hearing since April 9.

After the sunset provision was amended to the House bill, Galvano said he was reconsidering his position. He still hadn’t committed to hearing the bill as of Wednesday.

“We believe that privacy was protected when the bill was first introduced,” Moody told reporters after the Senate vote. To win over reluctant legislators, she mainly had to “correct misinformation,” she said.