DALLAS, Oct. 26 Tomorrow's "Dan Rather Reports" travels to Houston, Texas to investigate the very legal practice of some so-called "pain relief centers" dispensing potent prescription drugs without a doctor's care or examination. Many of these centers, that accept cash only, are located in strip malls across the Houston area.
These clinics, commonly known as "pill mills," operate mostly on a walk-in, first come - first serve basis, and do not accept credit cards, or insurance. The average visit is around $85.00. While these centers may be convenient for people who might not have health insurance, or the money to see a pain specialist, police say the business taking place here is dubious. That these centers attract illegal drug traffickers from nearby states such as Mississippi and Louisiana who allegedly fill prescriptions of powerful and addicting opiates, painkillers and anti-depressants and take them back home to sell on the black market.
"What we see from the people we arrested from owning these clinics are your former crack or cocaine dealers from the '80s or '90s who are now getting into the pill business as an illicit commodity," said John Kowal, a veteran narcotics officer with the Houston Police Department. Kowal tells Rather that many drug dealers fill these prescriptions for drugs such as hydrocodone (a pain killer), Soma (a muscle relaxant) and Xanax (an anti-depressant). "[The dealers make] more money. And you got less overhead. It does not have to be imported from Columbia or Mexico or come across the border. It's manufactured here right in the United States."
According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, nearly seven million Americans are abusing prescription drugs; that's more than the number who abuse heroin, cocaine, ecstasy and hallucinogens combined. These legal painkillers are the newest drug of choice among drug users and the leading cause of drug overdoses.
In his report Rather speaks to Ken and Esther Scarborough of Beaumont, Texas who lost their son to a drug overdose - drugs that he purchased from a Houston-area "pill mill." Just five days before he died, Christopher had simply walked into a local "pain relief center" and returned home with nearly four hundred pills.
"In my view [this] would be no different than if he had gone to the doctor and said, 'You know, I'm just a little depressed. I'm depressed, and I don't really know what I want to do.'" Ken Scarborough told Rather about Christopher's visit to the "pill mill." "Instead of giving him pills, the doctor would say, 'Well, I tell you what-- just go ahead and take this pistol and these six bullets, and go out to the shooting range and-- make yourself feel better. Just do a little target practice.'"
There are those people, however, who are working to change the laws surrounding these "pill mills" and how easily people can get their hands on prescription drugs. Texas Senator Tommy Williams has worked to pass legislation to combat the problem - including a requirement that physicians own and operate these clinics and that they review cases 30% of the time instead of the current 10%.
"In two of the six counties I represent, in 2006, we had over one hundred deaths from prescription drug overdoses," Williams tells Rather. "And-- that was a lot, given that one of those counties has about 80,000 people; the other one has about 250,000 or 260,000 people."
While there are many legitimate pain management clinics that Williams wants to protect, he wants to eradicate "pill mills" in Texas.
"The pain management clinics are really legitimate. There are a lot of good ones in the state. We want those guys to be able to keep practicing," Williams tells Rather. "But-- we want to hang out the 'You're not welcome' sign for the 'pill mills.'"
"Dan Rather Reports: Prescription for Disaster" premieres on HDNet on Tuesday, October 27 at 8:00 p.m. ET with an encore presentation at 11:00 p.m. ET to accommodate west coast prime time.
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