The state Assembly on Monday passed a pair of bills aimed at staunching prescription drug abuse and the mounting overdose death toll in California.
Propelled by a series of investigative reports in The Los Angeles Times, the bills would help authorities track drug-abusing patients as well as doctors who recklessly prescribe painkillers and other addictive narcotics.
The bills now head back to the Senate, where they originated and won overwhelming approval. If the Senate passes the latest versions, which include Assembly amendments, the bills would move on to Gov. Brown for final approval.
Senate Bill 62 would require coroners to report prescription overdose deaths to the Medical Board of California for review. The bill was introduced in the wake of a Times investigation into nearly 4,000 accidental deaths involving prescription drugs in Southern California. The Times found that in nearly half the cases, drugs that caused or contributed to a death had been prescribed by that person's physician.
The Medical Board was unaware of most of the deaths and made an extraordinary appeal to the public to help it identify such cases.
Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) said the measure would give the board "the ability to connect the dots and see patterns of drug overdose deaths linked to the same prescriber."
Senate Bill 809 would shore up California's prescription drug monitoring program, which was gutted during the state's fiscal crisis. The program, known as CURES, is viewed by experts and public health authorities as key to stemming the epidemic of overdose deaths.
Under the program, pharmacists are required to report to the state attorney general every narcotic prescription they dispense, including the names of the prescriber and the patient. In theory, the attorney general's office can use the data to identify doctor-shopping patients as well as physicians prescribing recklessly. But, because of budget cuts, the database is little used and relies on arcane and balky software.
The CURES bill, introduced by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord), would create a steady stream of funding for the program by raising fees on physicians and other prescribers.
A third bill that would make it easier for the Medical Board to stop doctors from prescribing narcotics during investigations is awaiting Assembly vote.
Sen. President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-San Francisco), the bill's author, accepted amendments aimed at addressing concerns expressed by the California Medical Assn.
But the physicians group remains opposed to the bill and sent out an alert Monday urging lawmakers to vote it down.
"Any limitation on a license, even a temporary one," the alert said, can affect a physician's insurance contracts and hospital privileges, "eviscerating a physician’s practice and livelihood."
Consumer Watchdog director Carmen Balber, however, said the latest changes to the bill "cripple a modest patient safety reform."