Several months after the SC Inspector General declared an "epidemic" of prescription drug abuse in South Carolina, the Department of Health and Environmental Control announced a new partnership with state investigators that Director Catherine Templeton said would help crack down on the problem.
"Today is a criminal attack on pill mills," Templeton said in a news conference at SLED headquarters in Columbia.
The D-HEC plan would use a state program called the pharmaceutical monitoring program, PMP, to "proactively assist the efforts of law enforcement across the state by providing targeted lists of individuals engaged in suspicious activity," according to a DHEC press statement.
7 On Your Side began investigating "pill mills" in January, identifying the largest painkiller prescribers through the state's Medicaid system.
After that report, one of the doctors profiled in the story pleaded guilty to "conspiracy to distribute oxycodone".
Further investigation revealed many of those so-called "pill mills" may operate in plain sight.
"It has been the problem in the past. We know those names like you do you probably got them from us," said Union County Sheriff David Taylor when asked if his department knew the names of pill mill doctors.
Using the Freedom of Information Act, 7 On Your Side got emails from the Inspector Generals office related to his report on prescription drugs. The emails named several doctors. One, from investigator Carlton Banks, said "overprescribing doctors are known to law enforcement". The same emails later name a doctor who was identified as "operating a pill mill".
Meanwhile DHEC had been monitoring prescribers and pill seekers all along.
"D-HEC has long gathered information on all controlled substance prescriptions in the state and we've always made that information available to doctors and law enforcement," Templeton said.
The Inspector General's emails show access to PMP may have stalled investigations in the past.
Banks wrote, "access to (pmp) was the first issue mentioned by investigators."
In one case involving suspected hydrocodone abuse he says Union County deputies told him "DHEC refused to release PMP information associated with the case even if a subpoena was provided."
A SLED investigator noted that his office has not had problems getting PMP information.
PMP investigations may also be limited because South Carolina doctors are not required to use the system at all.
The DHEC announcement will also change the way prescription data is gathered. Pharmacists do have to participate in PMP and starting January 1st, they will start uploading that information every 24 hours instead of every 30 days as they did before.