Tech problems may crimp launch of state's new prescription drug database

As the state prepares to unveil an enhanced prescription drug database next week, some health providers say it will be incompatible with their computer systems, hobbling their access to a tool meant to combat drug abuse.

The database, called the Controlled Substances Utilization Review and Evaluation System, or CURES, tracks prescriptions for certain narcotics. After a Times investigation found that it was underused and underfunded, legislators increased funding for the system in 2013.

The $3-million upgrade is set to roll out July 1, but a compatibility problem with certain web browsers may make it impossible for some doctors to use it. The California Medical Assn. sent a memo to its members last week warning that thousands of physicians could lose access to the system.

The new version of CURES will not work with older versions of Internet Explorer. Some health systems say newer browsers will not work with their electronic records.

That's the case for Kaiser Permanente, said Amy Thoma, a spokeswoman for the company, which employs more than 12,000 doctors statewide and operates 35 hospitals.

David Beltran, a spokesman for the state Department of Justice, which administers CURES, said doctors and hospitals had ample notice about the potential problem and plenty of time to update their systems.

The department “notified physicians months ago that accessing CURES 2.0 would require an up-to-date browser, which is critical to ensuring the highest protection of patient information,” Beltran said.

Other networks affected include Dignity Health, which operates 39 hospitals and eight pharmacies, and Sutter Health, which has 24 hospitals and 5,000 affiliated doctors.

Bill Gleeson, vice president of communications for Sutter, said the company will use Google’s Chrome browser with CURES in the short term, “as we make the necessary longer-term upgrades to Internet Explorer.”

State officials plan to launch the upgraded database as planned but will also continue to operate the older version for doctors who cannot access the new one.

Backers of drug databases like CURES say they are effective in clamping down on patients who seek narcotics prescriptions from multiple doctors and in identifying physicians who overprescribe such medication.

But a 2012 Times investigation found that less than 10% of physicians, pharmacists and other professionals eligible for online access had signed up to use the database. The Times reports, which examined the epidemic of prescription drug overdoses, prompted new state efforts to combat the abuse of painkillers.

A 2013 law required health practitioners who prescribe or dispense certain narcotics to apply for online access to the database by the end of this year. That legislation also increased CURES’ funding with a $6 annual fee levied on doctors.

But efforts to bolster CURES in California remain politically fraught.

Although the California Medical Assn. backed the 2013 legislation, the group opposes efforts to make use of the database mandatory, arguing that the system has so far not been functional enough to impose such a requirement on doctors.

Mandatory use of CURES was one component of a ballot initiative that voters rejected last year, a proposal to increase limits on medical malpractice awards and institute drug testing of physicians. In one provocative ad against the measure, opponents alleged that the database could be vulnerable to hackers and thus jeopardize patient privacy.

A bill in the Legislature that would require doctors to check CURES before prescribing certain drugs has been delayed until next year.

Bob Pack, an Internet executive who has championed the upgrade, said the concerns about technology are “overblown.”

“I see it as a way for the CMA to continually blast the CURES program,” said Pack, who took up the cause after his two children were killed by an impaired driver who had obtained multiple prescriptions for painkillers.

Molly Weedn, a spokeswoman for the association, said that “CMA and our physicians have long supported the CURES program.”

She said the decision to run both the old and new databases concurrently is a “step in the right direction,” but added, “We’re going to push back until the program is fully functioning and works for everybody.”

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


7:24 p.m., June 24: This post has been updated with additional comment from the California Medical Assn. and other interested parties, and with more background information.

This post was originally published at 5:42 p.m. June 23.