OxyContin

Purdue Pharma has sold more than $27 billion worth of the powerful painkiller OxyContin since its introduction in 1996. (Los Angeles Times)

The growing death toll from prescription drug overdoses reflects the increased use of powerful painkillers and psychotherapeutic drugs, many of which are addictive and toxic when misused.

Since The Times' Scott Glover and Lisa Girion began highlighting the problem late last year, state lawmakers have responded by trying to plug the information gaps that enable patients and doctors to abuse the system. Those efforts are slowly yielding results, although not to the extent that's needed.

Prescription drug abuse has grown steadily over the last decade, to the point where overdoses send more than 1 million Americans to emergency rooms annually. Although there's no simple way to guard against people abusing many of these drugs, considering the legitimate role they can play in treatment, it would help for doctors and regulators to have better data about the drugs that are being prescribed and dispensed, to whom and by whom.

Until now, lawmakers' focus has been on improving a state Justice Department database that collects records from pharmacists and doctors of all the dangerous prescription drugs they dispense, along with a monitoring program that lets doctors check what drugs their patients have already obtained before prescribing new ones. Both efforts have been so cash-starved, however, they're barely functional.

The Legislature is poised to approve a bill by Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) that would funnel more money to the database and monitoring program by increasing the licensing fee paid by prescribers, pharmacists and drug wholesalers by a few dollars a year. Even if the bill passes, though, the system won't be able to give doctors up-to-the-minute information on the drugs their patients may have obtained from other sources, which could help them fend off fraudulent pleas for prescriptions. That would require a change in the state law that gives those who dispense drugs up to seven days to report their actions. Nor will the bill provide the attorney general's office with the resources needed to comb through the data for signs of overprescribing doctors.

In addition to beefing up the database, lawmakers should also require coroners in California to report more information about deaths from prescription drug overdoses to the state medical board, as Sen. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance) has proposed. And state regulators should find a way to incorporate the information gathered by drug companies about the doctors they market their products to, which could provide more leads into excessive prescribing. A good example, as Glover and Girion pointed out earlier this week, is the "do not call" list compiled by Purdue Pharma, the maker of the popular narcotic painkiller OxyContin. Although such information is often merely a clue about a potential problem, not proof, it would still help investigators know where to start.