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Gov. Brown signs 2 of 3 bills fighting prescription drug abuse

The governor says he backs the idea of requiring coroners to report prescription drug deaths to the medical board, but vetoed it over the cost. Supporters say that third piece was key.

September 27, 2013|By Scott Glover and Lisa Girion
  • The two bills signed by Gov. Brown are aimed at giving authorities better tools and broader powers to crack down on problematic doctors.
The two bills signed by Gov. Brown are aimed at giving authorities better… (Richard Derk )

Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills Friday aimed at curbing prescription drug abuse but vetoed a third that could have helped the state's medical board identify reckless doctors whose patients died on pills they prescribed.

The three bills, which garnered strong bipartisan support, were spurred by a series of investigative reports in The Times that linked drugs prescribed by doctors to nearly half the prescription-involved overdose deaths in Southern California from 2006 through 2011. Seventy-one doctors prescribed drugs to three or more patients who later died. The vast majority of deaths were unknown to the medical board.

Consumer advocates praised the governor's support of the two bills, which are aimed at giving authorities better tools and broader powers to crack down on problematic doctors. But they complained that his veto of the third bill undercut the state's ability to identify patterns of death linked to a particular doctor.

"Why would you not want to be armed with that information?" asked Ventura County Assistant Sheriff Gary Pentis. "Any time we can share information that could potentially save lives, it's important."

Brown said in a statement that he vetoed the bill that would have required coroners to report deaths involving prescription drugs to the medical board because it created an "unfunded mandate for the state, potentially in the millions of dollars." He said the two laws he did sign, along with "more vigorous efforts" by the medical board, "will help detect and prevent prescription drug abuse without further burdening taxpayers."

One of the new laws enhances the state's prescription drug monitoring program. The centerpiece of the program, known as CURES, is a database containing detailed information about narcotics dispensed by pharmacies in California, including the identities of the prescriber and the patient.

The proactive analysis of such databases is viewed by public health experts as key to curbing the toll of prescription drugs. But CURES, which is run by the state attorney general's office, was gutted during California's fiscal crisis, and no one is actively mining it to identify problem prescribers.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), who authored the bill, said the upgrade of CURES would revolutionize the way authorities attack the prescription drug problem, whether it's identifying drug-abusing patients or reckless prescribers.

Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris agreed, saying in a prepared statement that the law helps fund "a critical tool to fight prescription drug abuse in California."

The second law Brown signed is designed to remove roadblocks that medical board officials say have hampered their ability to investigate physicians suspected of putting patients at risk. The law, drafted by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), will prevent doctors from stonewalling investigators by failing to turn over deceased patients' records or by repeatedly postponing interviews. Doctors who fail to cooperate can now face board sanctions for such actions.

Julianne Fellmeth, administrative director of the Center for Public Interest Law, which supported all three bills, said she was pleased that Brown embraced two of the three reforms. But, she said, the coroners measure was a bill that is key to Brown's expectations of more vigorous efforts.

"They can't do anything without information, and they are clearly not getting it now," she said.

Fellmeth said the bill was "carefully crafted to minimize cost" and by two official estimates was expected to run about $100,000 a year.

April Rovero, who began lobbying for better prescription drug laws and other reforms following the overdose death of her son, Joey, in 2009, put it another way: "It's an opportunity lost," she said. "What is the cost of a life lost?"

The bill coauthor, Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), said he was disappointed that Brown focused on the cost of implementing the bill instead of the cost of the prescription drug epidemic to victims, their families and the state.

"There's a fiscal cost to having people addicted to painkillers," Lieu said. "And there's the moral cost of having people die unnecessarily as well. We need to take that into account."

Lieu said he planned to talk to coroners to see whether they would be willing to make the reports on a voluntary basis.

Sharon Levine, president of the state's medical board, said she, too, wanted to find a way for the board to get the information from coroners' offices.

"That veto message is clear that it isn't the principle; it's the economics," Levine said. "So we need to work on that."

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