The chairman of a state Senate committee that oversees the Medical Board of California said Monday that he would introduce a bill requiring coroners to report all prescription drug deaths to the agency — a move aimed at helping authorities identify doctors whose prescribing practices may be harming patients.
Sen. Curren D. Price Jr. (D-Los Angeles), responding to a Times' report that authorities have failed to recognize how often people overdose on medications prescribed by their doctors, said the medical board needed coroners' reports to improve its oversight.
"There appears to be a disconnect between coroners and the medical board," Price said in an interview. "Hopefully, legislation will tighten that up and provide the kind of accountability we all expect."
The Times investigation published Sunday found that in nearly half of the accidental deaths from prescription drugs in four Southern California counties, the deceased had a doctor's prescription for at least one drug that caused or contributed to the death. The investigation identified 3,733 deaths that involved prescription drugs in Los Angeles, Orange, San Diego and Ventura counties from 2006 through 2011. In 1,762 of those cases — 47% — drugs for which the deceased had a prescription were the sole cause or a contributing cause of death.
The Times found that prescription drug deaths often involved multiple drugs, sometimes prescribed by more than one doctor. In some cases, the deceased also mixed prescribed drugs with illegal drugs, alcohol or both.
The paper identified 71 Southern California physicians who prescribed drugs to three or more patients who later fatally overdosed. The doctors were primarily pain specialists, general practitioners and psychiatrists.
Price said that although there may have been legitimate reasons for a doctor's prescriptions in such cases, "it's cause for some further review."
"I think a red flag goes up any time you have one [doctor] involved in several deaths," he said. "And I think an investigation is not only warranted, but called upon by the public."
The Times sought comment about its findings from medical board Executive Director Linda Whitney before publication. She declined to comment. But Whitney referred to the paper's findings at the board's Oct. 25 meeting. She said a lack of information from coroners may be undermining the board's scrutiny of physicians' prescribing practices.
The board agreed and voted to request that the Legislature require coroners to report prescription drug deaths to the agency.
State law already requires coroners to report deaths to the board that it suspects result from "gross negligence" by a physician. The board received only one coroner's report involving a prescription drug death last year.
"All deaths related to prescription drug overdoses should be reported to the board for further investigation," the board wrote in a Nov. 1 report to the Legislature. "This would allow the board to review the documentation and determine if the prescribing physician was treating in a correct or inappropriate manner."
Such a reporting requirement would dramatically increase the board's workload but would bolster public safety, the board report said.
"If only one physician was found to be overprescribing, this could save numerous lives," it said.