"Today's vote proves that stopping the prescription drug epidemic… (Rich Pedroncelli, AP )
The state Senate on Thursday unanimously passed the last bill in a broad package of proposed reforms aimed at combating prescription drug abuse and mounting overdose deaths in California.
The bills, inspired by a series of investigative stories in The Times, would help authorities track drug abusing patients as well as doctors who overprescribe painkillers and other addictive narcotics. One bill would give the state medical board the power to immediately suspend the prescribing privileges of doctors suspected of putting patients at risk.
All three bills passed with overwhelming support; two, including Thursday's vote to enhance the state's prescription drug monitoring program, were unanimous.
"Today's vote proves that stopping the prescription drug epidemic is a top priority for California," said Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), who introduced the bill to improve the prescription monitoring program known as CURES.
The slate of reforms was introduced in response to a Times investigation that found 71 physicians 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. Nearly half involved at least one drug that had been prescribed to the decedent by a physician. The medical board was unaware of the vast majority of the deaths.
Coroners would be required to report deaths involving prescription narcotics to the medical board for possible investigation under one of the bills that passed unanimously.
Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced a third bill that would give the medical board more power to investigate physicians suspected of overprescribing — and suspend their prescribing privileges. He drafted the bill after a Times report that detailed cases in which medical board investigations of alleged overprescribing dragged on for months and sometimes years. At least 30 patients fatally overdosed on prescriptions written by doctors during such investigations, the Times found.
"We need to give the board the tools it needs to inspect records and take action quickly when patients' lives are at risk," Steinberg said in a statement.
The bill to shore up the state's prescription drug monitoring program, which was co-sponsored by state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris, won the support of a broad coalition of law enforcement groups, health insurance companies, and business, labor and consumer organizations. But it also faced stiff head winds from the pharmaceutical industry.
As approved Thursday, the bill would create a steady stream of funding for the program by raising licensing fees on pharmacists and doctors and other prescribers. Initially, the bill also called for a tax on drug makers to allow the attorney general to hire teams of investigators to crack down on drug-seeking patients and doctors who recklessly prescribe to them.
But that provision drew opposition from several pharmaceutical companies and trade groups that succeeded in defeating the bill earlier this week by a margin of just four votes.
In a last-ditch bid to keep the bill moving forward, its sponsors removed the drug maker tax — sacrificing the enforcement squads. The pharmaceutical companies and trade groups dropped their opposition, and the bill passed unanimously.
Bob Pack, an Internet entrepreneur who helped modernize CURES after a driver under the influence of pain pills and alcohol swerved off the road and killed his two children a decade ago, said he was disappointed by the "watering down" of the bill.
Pack said he would pursue a ballot initiative to restore funding for the enforcement teams and require doctors to check CURES before prescribing narcotics, a provision that was earlier dropped to win physician support.
Harris said in a statement after the vote that the bill was a good first step. But she said she would continue to work with lawmakers to provide her office "with the law enforcement teams it needs to address the deadly epidemic of prescription drug abuse."
DeSaulnier said CURES could be an important tool in fighting a prescription drug problem that claims the lives of six Californians a day. The funding sought "is a small price to pay when so many lives are at stake," he said.
Sen. Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the coroners reporting bill, said he was cautiously optimistic that the Assembly would approve the proposed reforms.
"They are all common-sense bills," he said.