A bill intended to crack down on ‘‘pill mills’’ in Georgia passed a key House committee unanimously Monday, after stirring testimony from a northwest...

A bill intended to crack down on ‘‘pill mills’’ in Georgia passed a key House committee unanimously Monday, after stirring testimony from a northwest Georgia coroner and a suburban Atlanta police chief.

House Bill 178 would put pain management clinics under the regulation of Georgia’s medical board, which would issue licenses to their operators. And after June 30, any new pain clinic would have to be physician-owned — a requirement similar to other states’ laws.

A similar bill died last year on the final day of the General Assembly.

Georgia has a major pill mill problem, said the legislation’s lead sponsor, Rep. Tom Weldon (R-Ringgold), at a hearing of the House Health and Human Services Committee. That’s partly because neighboring states, including Florida, have passed tougher laws against pill mills, which dispense controlled drugs such as oxycodone, Xanax and hydrocodone.

Many of these clinic operators have recently moved to Georgia to set up shop, a recent Wall Street Journal article reported.

“We’re known as the doughnut hole when it comes to pain management,’’ said Weldon, an attorney.

A ‘‘pill mill” is a doctor’s office, clinic or pharmacy that is prescribing or dispensing powerful narcotics inappropriately or for non-medical reasons.

The federal government says prescription painkillers are the nation’s No. 1 drug epidemic. More than 16,000 people die annually in the United States from opioid painkillers — more than from heroin and cocaine combined.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Georgia is home to more than 125 pain clinics, up from fewer than 10 in 2010. Per capita prescription sales of oxycodone in Georgia tripled between 2000 and 2010, the Journal reported.

State Attorney General Sam Olens has emphasized the need for pill mill legislation, and lawyers from his office helped craft the wording in the bill.

These clinics “are killing Georgia citizens,’’ said Rep. Sharon Cooper (R-Marietta), chair of the Health and Human Services Committee.

The House bill is partly based on a new Florida law, Weldon said.

Weldon told the House committee of a young man from Ringgold who recently died from an overdose of a drug mixed with alcohol.

People in constant pain need medications, he said. “Pain management is legitimate and necessary and provides good health care for people who have chronic pain,’’ he said.

After the committee vote, Weldon told Georgia Health News that the anti-pill mill effort is a personal issue for him,  and cited a brother’s addiction to drugs, along with the young Ringgold man who overdosed.

Last month, owners and employees of a pain clinic in Lilburn, in suburban Atlanta, were indicted on federal charges that they allegedly sold prescriptions for opiate-based narcotics to addicts and drug dealers.

Lilburn’s police chief, Bruce Hedley, told the Georgia House panel Monday that the clinic, located near Berkmar High School, represented “a clear and present threat to our community.’’

The patients were mainly from outside Georgia, he said.

Formerly, Florida was “the epicenter’’ of illegal pain clinics, said Hedley. Now Georgia is the epicenter, he said.

(Here’s an article on the Lilburn bust from Gwinnett Patch.)

Also addressing the lawmakers was Vanita Hollander, the coroner in Catoosa County, where Ringgold is located. She said that last year, at least 20 county residents died from prescription drug overdoses.

“We’re only touching the tip of the iceberg,’’ Hollander told the panel.

She said her own daughter became addicted to painkillers after injuring her back. Her daughter has overcome that addiction, but still has physical problems from the drug abuse, Hollander said.

“There are a lot of good, honest people getting addicted,’’ Hollander said.

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Andy Miller

Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News

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