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Restored funding for prescription drug-monitoring program urged

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris calls on Gov. Jerry Brown to restore funding to CURES, a program that health experts say is key to combating drug abuse and overdose deaths in the state.

January 11, 2013|By Lisa Girion and Scott Glover, Los Angeles Times

California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris on Thursday called on Gov. Jerry Brown to restore funding to a prescription drug-monitoring program that health experts say is key to combating drug abuse and overdose deaths in the state.

Harris' appeal to restore funding to CURES, as it is known, follows an article in The Times last month that reported that the system, once heralded as an invaluable tool, had been severely undermined by budget cuts and was not being used to its full potential.

The CURES database contains detailed information on prescription narcotics, including the names of patients, the doctors prescribing the drugs and the pharmacies that dispense them. The system was designed to help physicians detect "doctor-shopping" patients who dupe multiple physicians into prescribing drugs such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Xanax.

Harris' request followed Brown's unveiling of a proposed $97.7-billion budget, which projects a surplus — a feat that has been accomplished only one time in the last decade. With California's fiscal condition improving, Harris said it was up to the state to make sure the money was "spent wisely."

"This includes smart investments that benefit Californians, such as restoring funding for the state's prescription drug-monitoring program," she said in a statement.

Brown's office had no comment.

The governor's budget does increase Harris' Department of Justice general fund allocation by 4.5% to $174.3 million, but it does not earmark money for CURES. Harris could seek legislative authority to spend some of her budget on the program.

"We are going to have a discussion on the funding and where the money will come from," said Lynda Gledhill, a spokeswoman for Harris.

CURES is the nation's oldest and largest prescription drug-monitoring program and once served as a model for other states. Today, it has fallen behind similar programs elsewhere. CURES data could be used to monitor physicians whose prescribing puts patients at risk. But it is not.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends that states use such data to keep tabs on doctors, and at least half a dozen states do so.

As part of spending cuts aimed at maintaining the state's solvency amid a deep recession, Brown gutted the Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement, which ran CURES, in 2011, shortly after Harris succeeded him as attorney general. Harris kept the program alive with about $400,000 in revenue from the Medical Board of California and other licensing boards. But it is down to one employee and has no enforcement capacity.

State officials have estimated it would cost about $2.8 million to make CURES more accessible and easier to use, and $1.6 million more per year to keep it running. However, officials say the program — with little or no additional financial resources — could now be used to identify potentially rogue doctors.

Bob Pack, an Internet entrepreneur, has advocated using CURES more vigorously to track reckless physicians and pharmacies as well as doctor-shopping patients. He became active on the issue after a driver high on painkillers and alcohol struck and killed his two young children in the Bay Area suburb of Danville in 2003.

Pack, who helped design an online portal to give physicians and pharmacists immediate access to CURES, said he was happy to see Harris ask Brown to restore funds for the program.

"But that's only a request," he said. "No one knows if that's really going to happen. Meanwhile, doctors are continuing to over-prescribe and thousands of Californians are dying from prescription drug overdoses. I hope this … has some bite to it."

An aide to Harris said restoring the CURES program is a high priority.

"She's committed to fixing the database and making it as strong as possible," said Travis LeBlanc, special assistant attorney general. "When we have limited resources and in a budget crunch, we need to focus our resources and use it in smart, efficient ways, and [CURES] is one of those," he said.

lisa.girion@latimes.com

scott.glover@latimes.com

Times staff writer Hailey Branson-Potts contributed to this report.

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