Nonpartisan prescription


THE STATE LEGISLATURE just keeps giving voters reason to have a low opinion of it.

Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez may have thought it was a smart political strategy to quash a workers’ compensation reform bill from state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough), burying it in committee and barring a final vote. What he lost, though, was an opportunity to support good nonpartisan policy. The measure would have closed a truck-sized loophole that allows doctors to sell prescription drugs at huge markups to people covered by workers’ comp policies. Speier’s bill, which would have applied the same caps on reimbursements to doctors as those already placed on pharmacies, was narrowly targeted and had passed the Senate, 40 to 0.

As The Times’ Marc Lifsher reported Tuesday, the markup on a single bottle of medicine sold from a doctor’s office can reach $500. The markup on the same prescription dispensed at a pharmacy would be small and strictly controlled. According to a legislative staffer who worked on Speier’s bill, some doctors even have a pharmacy technician in their offices to take advantage of this lucrative sideline. Doctors who don’t see workers’ comp patients don’t do this because prescription drug insurers would never stand for it. That alone is proof of the size of the loophole.

Who pays? In the broad sense, insurers. But high costs hurt both employers and employees -- not to mention taxpayers. Under the Speier bill, state and local governments alone, which insure themselves for worker injury, could save $10 million or more a year.


For Nunez (D-Los Angeles), the bill was a strategic weapon aimed at forcing Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and legislative Republicans to make broader changes in workers’ comp regulations.

There is no question that the governor and his allies have been poor negotiating partners this year, and the workers’ comp overhaul that Nunez seeks has its merits. The current law, backed by Schwarzenegger in 2003, was an effort to drive down workers’ comp costs to employers. The result so far has been a healthy jump in profits for insurers, a modest savings to employers and substantially less compensation to injured workers. The pendulum may well have swung too far. That does not justify blocking Speier’s smaller reform, with its clear benefit and broad support.

There is skulduggery throughout Sacramento in the last days of the Legislature’s rush to adjourn on Thursday. Bills are being emptied of their original content and rewritten as something entirely different at the behest of special interests. The death of Speier’s SB 292 was just one small action, but the bill stood out because its intention was so clearly right.