State to perform a 'sunset review' of Medical Board of California, the agency that disciplines doctors

Erika Aguilar/KPCC

April Rovero of San Ramon in Northern California wears a rubber bracelet that reminds her of son, 21-year old Joseph Rovero who died in 2009 of prescription drug overdose.

The families of people who have died from prescription drug abuse will rally Monday at the state capitol as lawmakers inside hold a hearing evaluating the state agency responsible for licensing and disciplining physicians.

A "sunset review" hearing of the Medical Board of California is scheduled at about 10:30 a.m. in Sacramento.

The medical board is responsible for licensing and disciplining medical doctors. It investigates complaints against physicians.

Sunset reviews are to determine whether a state agency’s purpose is still relevant, effective, and how it can be improved, if it is. Each state agency has an “expiration date” assessment. The Joint Sunset Review Committee can let the agency expire or cease to exist, continue the agency, or make recommendations or suggest legislation to change it.

“Let this board sunset,” says Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, a consumer and taxpayer advocacy group.

Court believes the state medical board has been negligent by taking too long and delaying investigations on doctors accused of prescribing drugs recklessly to patients.

In a recently published investigation by the Los Angeles Times examining prescription drug deaths in Southern California, it reported there were 30 patients who died from overdose or related causes while their doctors were under investigation by the state medical board.

The court wants the board replaced with new members and their investigative powers transferred to a criminal justice investigation agency. Fifteen people appointed by the governor and state lawmakers sit on the state medical board; eight of them are doctors.

“Transfer the investigators over to the attorney general’s office so that they are not under control of this bureaucratic agency,” Court said.

Officials on the Medical Board of California have said years of budget cuts, reduced staff, and limited investigations powers have hindered their ability to go after irresponsible doctors.

In 2008, the state government mandated furlough days for medical board employees and transferred $6 million of the board’s main revenue, generated from doctor licensing fees, to other agencies to balance the budget.

Governor Jerry Brown also borrowed from the medical board’s budget in 2009 and laid off or transferred investigators assigned to a state database that tracks drug prescriptions looking for potential abuse.

Since her son’s overdose death three years ago, April Rovero has made frequent trips to the Southland from Northern California.

Her son’s death is one of three tied to a Rowland Heights doctor who allegedly prescribed narcotic meds to her son. That case awaits criminal trial.

Until then, Rovero spends her time running the nonprofit National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse. She will speak Monday at the sunset review hearing of the state medical board.

“We really want legislative action. We want to alert the community of the problem. We want education,” Rovero said.

In a response to the LA Times investigation, officials with the medical board told the newspaper it has asked for legislation that would require coroners to send all reports concerning prescription drug overdose deaths, not just suspicious ones.

There’s also been interest from politicians to find funding for the state’s prescription drug tracking database.

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