Florida pain clinics are banned from selling narcotic pills, but some operators are trying to preserve their main source of cash by opening pharmacies.
Pain clinic owners have flooded the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency with requests to start small drugstores. In the first six months of the year, Floridians filed more than 215 applications for federal controlled-substance registrations, half of the nation's total.
DEA and state health officials said they are trying to weed out proposed pharmacies tied to pill mills, and they have blocked dozens of applications. Businesses must get a pharmacy license from the state before seeking federal approval.
The effort aims to dry up pill-selling profits that fueled more than 300 rogue pain clinics in South Florida in recent years, turning the area and later other parts of the state into the single biggest supplier of narcotic tablets in the Southeast.
Officials at DEA regional headquarters in Weston blocked one application by a truck driver friend of a pill mill operator, as well as others for tiny storefronts with little more than a window to dispense pain drugs, said John McKenna, assistant special agent in charge.
"They would have three or four shelves with a couple boxes of Kleenexes, a couple bars of soap and a few other things. It was obviously staged to look like a drugstore," McKenna said.
"We're not going to stop legitimate businesses. But we are going to try to stop these rogue pharmacies. We're not going to hand out DEA controlled substance licenses like candy," McKenna said.
Among those blocked: Joel Shumrak, owner of the Pain Center of Broward on North Federal Highway inFort Lauderdale.
He applied to open a pharmacy next door to his pain clinic soon after Oct. 1, 2010, when the state restricted pain clinics and doctors to selling only three days' worth of pills to their patients. As of July 1, they can only prescribe drugs, not sell them.
Shumrak got a state license in January. A month later, he said, DEA agents interviewed him for four hours and made it plain he would not easily get federal approval to sell controlled substances. He said he withdrew his application, and without the ability to sell pain pills, turned in his state license and gave up on starting a pharmacy.
"Let's be blunt. The only reason I wanted the pharmacy was to serve my pain clients," Shumrak said. "Without a DEA license, it wasn't worth going forward. I couldn't have filled any of the [pain] prescriptions. I didn't want to be a regular drugstore."
The Florida Department of Health approved 800 new pharmacies in the 12 months ended in August, up from 600 to 650 granted in each of the previous five years. State records show dozens of the new pharmacies in the past year closed within months — or never opened. The DEA could not say how many of those had been blocked from selling controlled substances.
Many of those applicants must not have wanted to open pharmacies, said Michael Jackson, a spokesman for the 8,700 pharmacies in Florida.
"You can make money with a pharmacy even if you don't sell pain medications," said Jackson, executive vice president of the Florida Pharmacy Association. "It's a lot of work to get a license. Why go through that and not open?"
McKenna said pharmacies blocked by the DEA often proposed to operate in unusual ways: They would take only cash or credit cards because accepting health insurance would subject them to state regulations.
The owners had no experience in or connection to the pharmacy business. McKenna said pain clinic operators with past violations or criminal convictions know they would be turned down, so they find someone else to put their name on the application.
Some plan to open only from 9 to 5 on weekdays, even when located across the street from a national chain drug store with much longer hours.
Never-opened and closed pharmacies dot strip shopping centers around South Florida.
In Boca Raton, the now-empty Country Value Pharmacy got its state license in August 2010 but came under state investigation in November after an inspector found it had illegally received pain pills from pain clinics and pain doctors instead of a licensed supplier, according to a health department report. The state revoked its license in July.
Company manager David Evansen could not be reached for comment despite several attempts by phone.
Staff writer Amy Pavuk contributed to this report