I-Team: Independent study shows Florida doctors continue to mark up drugs for hurt workers

Florida stands pat while other states take action

TAMPA - A new study released Thursday gives more ammunition to Florida business owners trying to get state legislators to close a legal loophole that they say allows physicians to gouge them when treating injured workers.

The ABC Action News I-Team exposed the problem --- and the political money that appears to be keeping the loophole wide open --- in a report last February. A bill designed to close the loophole died again during this year's legislative session in Tallahassee.

The new study by the Workers Compensation Research Institute found that 62 percent of all prescription drug spending in Florida for injured workers was paid to physicians who dispensed medications from their offices --- not to pharmacies, which typically charge much less for the same pills.

The cost discrepancy hits employers who must pay physicians the higher prices. Critics of the loophole say the larger workers compensation premiums may limit the ability of Florida employers to hire more workers to boost the state's sluggish economy.

The institute, an independent and non-partisan research organization based in Massachusetts, concluded that certain drugs prescribed and dispensed by Florida physicians were infrequently prescribed in other states where physician dispensing is rare.

For example, data from 2007 to 2011 analyzed by the institute showed that 11 percent of injured workers in Florida received prescriptions for either Prilosec or Zantac, as compared to less than 2 percent in most of 22 other states that were studied. When physicians dispensed, the average price paid for each pill was $7.07 for Prilosec and $4.81 for Zantac. That compared to 64 cents for each Prilosec and 42 cents for each Zantac when the same drugs were purchased over-the-counter at Walgreens, according to the institute.

While five states in the study --- Arizona, California, Georgia, South Carolina, and Tennessee --- have recently adopted reforms to reduce the prices of physician-dispensed drugs, Florida legislators have shown little similar inclination.

Reform proponents point to a Miramar company, Automated Health Care Solutions LLC, which sells software to physicians to manage their pill-dispensing to injured workers. Automated Health Care Solutions has contributed more than $3 million to state political figures since 2010, according to an I-Team analysis earlier this year. The company spent another $575,000 on lobbyists during the past two years, according to disclosure filings.

State Sen. Alan Hays of Deland blamed the failure of his 2012 reform bill on Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a fellow Republican. After the Legislature adjourned in March, Hays wondered aloud whether the millions of dollars from Automated Health Care Solutions that have flooded the coffers of political action committees run by Haridopolos drove the Senate president to block the reform legislation from a floor vote.

"The opponents of the bill have put over $3 million into the political process in Florida the last two calendar years," Hays told the I-Team. "So you can draw your conclusion from that."

Do you have information about government waste, fraud or abuse? A tip about business misconduct that needs to be investigated? Email us at iteam@abcactionnews.com .  

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