Lawmakers, advocates press Medical Board to investigate doctors who over-prescribe painkillers

Mother of son who overdosed on medications his physician prescribed

Julie Small/KPCC

Tammy Smick holds a photograph of her son, Alexander, who died February 23, 2012 of an overdose. Smick told lawmakers the doctor who prescribed the lethal drugs practices medicine in Long Beach.

State lawmakers took a close look at the Medical Board of California Monday—and whether it’s doing enough to police doctors who freely prescribe painkillers

A recent L.A. Times investigation found that the Medical Board took so long to investigate doctors suspected of prescription abuse that 30 of their patients died while the probe was underway.

Relatives of some of those who died spoke at the legislative hearing Monday.

James Kennedy’s son Joseph was an addict who knew which doctor would give him prescriptions for Xanax and methadone—the drugs that cost him his life.

"At age 28, my son was found dead lying face down in the gravel along side a road in San Juan Capistrano on Feb. 4, 2010," Kennedy testified, choking back emotion at times.

Kennedy said his son got the prescriptions for $150 in cash. He says drug addicts in the area call the prescribing doctor “the Candy Man.”

“He needs to be punished for knowingly prescribing narcotics to addicts under the guise of pain management," said Kennedy.

He told lawmakers that he filed a complaint with the state Medical Board more than a year ago, but the only information he’s received is that the case is "under investigation."

Tim Smick told lawmakers three doctors treated his son Alexander for back pain. Alexander, 20, ended up dead.   
 
"I never will forget being taken to the hospital room where our son lay. He was purple, cold and stiff with rigor mortis," said Smick. "The doctor says he had no idea what went wrong. He knew exactly what went wrong."

The coroner’s report said the trio of doctors gave Alexander a lethal combination of drugs, said Smick. The family reported that to the Medical Board – but the coroner didn’t because he wasn’t required to.  

The president of the Medical Board of California – Dr. Sharon Levine — told lawmakers the board has to receive a substantive complaint before it can investigate.

"Complaints regarding prescription drug related offenses can be somewhat difficult for the board to retain," Levine said. "In many instances, patients who are receiving prescription drugs in a manner that is not within the standard of practice are not interested in bringing a complaint to the board."

Anonymous tips to the board often lack enough information to open an investigation, said Levine. Family members who file a complaint must provide the board with a release so the board can get the patient’s medical records. Without that, she said, the board has to have enough evidence to convince a judge to issue a subpoena those records.

But Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) questioned the board’s approach, asking Levine why the Medical Board waits for a complaint. Why not actively monitor misconduct?

"Is it not the responsibility of the board to seek out those individuals and how do you do it?" Hernandez asked. Levine replied that the board lacks the "statutory authority to do it."

Hernandez pressed her, asking whether it would be "appropriate" for the Medical Board to have some type of statutory authority for patient protection.

"I honestly can’t answer that ahead of a policy discussion at the board," said Levine.
 
Medical board members have endorsed one change: They want to require coroners to report all deaths related to prescription drugs to them. State Senator Curren Price (D-Los Angeles), who chaired the hearing on the Medical Board, has introduced a bill to enact the change.

Advocates want the board to raise physician license fees to fund a database that would track prescriptions. They say the database, called CURES, could be use to shut down doctors who prescribe painkillers recklessly.

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