Psychiatrist Sohail Punjwani

Psychiatrist Sohail Punjwani

Miami Herald

Effort to protect children from overmedication fails
The product of state child welfare administrators\’ half-year of soul-searching, a bill to protect foster kids from powerful mental health drugs is killed by doctors.
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — When a heavily medicated foster child died of an apparent suicide, the response seemed obvious: Better oversight of the way doctors prescribe psychiatric drugs to children in state care.

But in the waning days of Florida\’s 60-day lawmaking session, what looked like common-sense regulation to some has no chance of passing, a victim of conflicting ideologies and the power of doctors and psychiatrists in the Capitol who don\’t want government telling them what to do.

The bill, sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Ronda Storms, a Valrico Republican, would have required doctors to seek the “assent\’\’ of older foster kids before they could be medicated, and upheld provisions of current law that require doctors to gain consent from a parent or judge in most cases before a foster child could be drugged.

“I\’m extremely disappointed,\’\’ said Jim Sewell, a former lawman who headed up a six-month investigation for the Department of Children & Families into the April 16, 2009, death of 7-year-old Gabriel Myers. “For all of us, this was a real involvement of the heart, and to see it not get codified into law was a big disappointment.\’\’

Sewell, a former Florida Department of Law Enforcement deputy commissioner who is now special assistant to DCF Secretary George Sheldon, presided over a series of public hearings on Gabriel\’s death, and published a surprisingly frank report last November. Gabriel had been prescribed several mental-health drugs in the months before his death, including anti-depressants linked to an increased risk of suicide among children. Sewell\’s report contained a host of recommendations for changes in state law — many of which were in the bill.

Among other things, the bill would have banned children in state care from being enrolled in clinical drug trials — a provision that gained momentum last month when Gabriel\’s psychiatrist, Dr. Sohail Punjwani, received a stern warning from federal regulators over his conduct in a drug trial for an undisclosed psychiatric drug.

The measure flew through the Senate with unanimous votes in every committee. But in the House, Rep. Paige Kreegel, a physician, refused to even hear the bill in his Health Care Services Policy Committee.

“I don\’t feel right now that we are in definite need of any additional regulation in the state,\’\’ said Kreegel, a Punta Gorda Republican. “There\’s all kinds of regulation.\’\’

Kreegel said he didn\’t know the particular facts behind the case of Gabriel Myers — who authorities say hanged himself with a shower cord in the bathroom of his Margate foster home. But he said Storms\’ legislation would effectively have stopped psychiatrists from prescribing medicine to needy children.

Kreegel called some of Storms\’ statements about out-of-control doctors “baloney.\’\’ Storms was outraged that Kreegel was able to kill the bill — which was one of DCF\’s highest legislative priorities.

“How can anyone be against protecting children?\’\’ Storms said.

Storms spent a feverish week trying to get around Kreegel\’s procedural maneuver. She amended her bill onto a must-pass piece of legislation governing DCF. Then she persuaded Senate leaders to make the issue part of budget negotiations.

Among other moves, Storms passed around a Miami Herald story showing a Miami doctor had ignored scores of letters — and three office visits — from state health regulators who warned his mental health drug prescribing practices were potentially dangerous. One of the doctor\’s patients, a disabled 12-year-old, died of complications from over-medication.

But the House balked at every turn.

Sen. Nan Rich from Weston, who will become the ranking Democrat next year, said the Houses\’s failure to take up the bill will allow future child welfare administrators to “once again fall back into the path of least resistence\’\’ by using mental health drugs as a chemical restraint on unruly foster kids.