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California panel advances bills targeting prescription drug abuse

The state Senate committee approved bills that are designed to reduce overdose deaths following Times reports that linked doctors to fatal overdoses.

April 15, 2013|By Lisa Girion and Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times
  • California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris discusses her support for a bill proposed by state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, left, that would impose a fee on medical care providers, drug manufacturers and health insurance plans to provide money to upgrade prescription-abuse tracking systems. They appeared at a new conference in Sacramento.
California Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris discusses her support for a bill proposed… (Rich Pedroncelli / Associated…)

A broad package of bills aimed at reducing prescription drug abuse and overdose deaths won approval from a key state Senate committee Monday.

The bills, including a measure that would require coroners to report prescription-involved deaths to the Medical Board of California, followed a series of Times articles linking doctors to patient overdose deaths.

In urging approval for his coroner-reporting bill, Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles) cited the case of a doctor identified by The Times as having prescribed drugs to 16 patients who died of overdoses or related causes. The doctor, Van H. Vu, had a clean record with the medical board, and there was no evidence that the board was aware of any of the patient deaths.

"The main thing we're trying to do here is connect the dots," Price said Monday at the hearing of the Senate Business and Professions Committee, which he chairs.

A Times analysis found that Vu led a list of 71 physicians who had prescribed medications to three or more patients who died of drug-related causes. The finding was part of an analysis of 3,733 prescription-drug-related fatalities in Southern California from 2006 through 2011, which found that nearly half involved at least one drug that had been prescribed to the decedent by a physician.

In an interview with The Times last year, Vu said that he had been unaware of many of his patients' deaths and that learning of them was "eye opening."

The medical board has since opened an investigation into Vu's practice. In an interview, Vu said he always provided excellent patient care.

Also winning committee approval Monday was a bill that would upgrade the state's prescription drug monitoring program, known as CURES. Similar bills have failed in two previous legislative sessions. This time, Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris and Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), sponsors of the bill, held a news conference before the vote to urge approval.

Flanked by police chiefs, Harris said the bill was vitally important to reducing the toll of prescription drug abuse, which she called "one of the most serious public health and public safety issues that we as a state are facing."

"This legislation will modernize and strengthen the program and provide doctors and law enforcement with a powerful tool to fight prescription drug abuse," Harris said. She said it would "help save lives."

The CURES bill was approved by seven members of the committee. The two Republican members voted against the bill, and Sen. Leland Y. Yee (D-San Francisco) abstained.

Of the package, the CURES bill drew the most flak. Several pharmaceutical and biotech industry trade groups oppose the bill because it would impose a tax on drug makers to fund new anti-drug enforcement squads.

The bill has wide support from law enforcement groups, state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones, the state pharmacists association and others.

DeSaulnier, after the vote, was cautiously optimistic

"This is a good first step, but this is still going to be very hard to accomplish," he said

A bill that would make it easier for the medical board to investigate physicians suspected of overprescribing — and suspend their prescribing privileges — also won approval. The bill was drafted by Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) in response to a Times investigative report that detailed cases in which doctors continued to practice despite having prescribed drugs to multiple patients who fatally overdosed. In some instances, the deaths occurred as the doctor was under investigation by the board and the inquiry dragged on for months or years.

The final bill to pass, a measure drafted by Price, would prohibit pharmacies from advertising commonly abused narcotic medications, such as OxyContin and Vicodin.

All four bills must clear second committees before moving to the Senate floor.

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