Fearing lawmakers may fail to pass a package of medical reform bills, a coalition of consumer groups and trial lawyers is mounting a campaign to put before voters an even more ambitious slate of initiatives aimed at curbing prescription drug abuse and holding doctors more accountable for misconduct.
About two dozen state and national advocacy groups — including the Consumer Attorneys of California, California Nurses Assn., the Center for Public Interest Law, and Public Citizen — have been organizing privately since December and plan to unveil the campaign at the state Capitol on Thursday.
At the heart of the effort is Bob Pack, whose two young children were killed 10 years ago by a driver who had been drinking alcohol and taking pain pills prescribed by several doctors.
Pack has been working with lawmakers on reforms but said he is concerned that doctors and drugmakers will succeed in watering down or killing pending bills. So Pack said he is willing to help finance the drive toward a ballot measure with funds from a foundation he created in the wake of his family's tragedy.
The momentum for reform was sparked by a series of articles in The Times last year that showed that nearly half of the prescription drug deaths in Southern California in recent years involved prescriptions written by doctors to the decedents.
The Times found 71 doctors who had three or more patients fatally overdose, and several had a dozen or more die. In some cases, patients fatally overdosed while the Medical Board of California was investigating their doctors for reckless prescribing.
"The problem is, when someone dies from a prescription drug overdose in California, there is no recourse at all," Pack said.
The slate of bills in the Legislature includes a proposal to upgrade the state's prescription drug monitoring program, known as CURES, so that physicians can readily check to see if their patients are doctor-shopping. But Pack said that the current bill doesn't go far enough. He wants a requirement that regulators monitor the database for signs of reckless prescribing — and take action against doctors.
Pack's coalition also wants to lift the 37-year-old cap on pain and suffering damages for medical malpractice victims — a controversial proposal that is not currently before the Legislature.
Pack has opposed the cap ever since his son and daughter were struck and killed by a driver who obtained prescriptions for narcotic painkillers from several physicians in the same medical group. The driver was convicted in the hit-and-run deaths and is serving a 30-year prison sentence.
When Pack tried to sue the physicians, several lawyers declined, he said — not because the case was weak but because it would cost more than the $250,000 damage cap to pursue it.
Pack, a wealthy Internet entrepreneur, said he ultimately found a lawyer who negotiated an out-of-court settlement. He said he agreed to keep the amount confidential.
But it wasn't the money he was after, Pack said. Rather, he wanted to expose what he saw as a systemic failure of doctors prescribing dangerous medications without checking a patient's record.
"It was just a shock to learn that a law like this exists," he said in a recent interview. "I wanted access to the courts for justice. It's just like a door slamming and … you can't do anything."
Supporters of the pain and suffering cap say it reined in skyrocketing medical malpractice insurance costs that drove some physicians and clinics out of business.
Cathy Frey, a leader of a coalition of doctors, hospitals and community clinics who lobby in favor of the cap, called the notion of lifting it "the worst possible overreach at the worst possible time."
Frey, who is also the chief executive of a chain of clinics that caters to low-income patients in the Central Valley, said the move was motivated by greed.
"This threat of a ballot measure is nothing more than a money grab by trial lawyers that will ultimately result in higher healthcare costs for all patients," she said in a prepared statement.
The consumer coalition is still hammering out details on the scope of a ballot measure. Among the more controversial ideas under consideration is mandatory drug testing for physicians. The group has until September to submit a proposed initiative to the state in order to qualify for the November 2014 general election ballot.
The California Nurses Assn. joined the effort, even though its members could be the targets of malpractice suits, because it views the cap on damages as a "disincentive for improvements in the quality of healthcare," said Michael Lighty, the group's policy director.
The consumer attorneys group already has invested in polling that suggests many of the ideas would be popular among voters, according to a summary of the results reviewed by The Times.
The effort is being organized by Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group with a history of running successful ballot campaigns, most notably Proposition 103, which allows the state to regulate auto and property insurance rates.
The coalition plans to launch a website Thursday to promote the campaign.