Funds to run out for database that monitors prescription drug usage

California Attorney General Kamala Harris wants the state to continue funding a program that tracks prescriptions of controlled substances.
California Attorney General Kamala Harris wants the state to continue funding a program that tracks prescriptions of controlled substances.
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California is about to cut off funding for a database that tracks prescription drug use and abuse — unless people such as Robert Pack can convince state lawmakers that the program is critical.

“I lost my my 10-year-old son Troy and my 7-year-old daughter Alana to a doctor shopper,” Pack said Monday prior to a hearing on a bill that would increase funding for the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System, or CURES.

Nine years ago, Pack was strolling with his family in their Danville neighborhood when a woman driving 45 miles-an-hour struck and killed two of his children.

Pack later found out that physicians at Kaiser Permanente issued thousands of prescriptions to the woman.  Just a couple weeks earlier, he said, “she had received 315 Vicodin, 180 Flexeril muscle relaxants — and took them all prior to that accident.”

Pack says CURES can prevent that kind of abuse. The system requires pharmacists to report any prescriptions of controlled substances to the state Department of Justice. The agency puts the information into a database that prescribing physicians can access to make sure patients aren’t feigning illness to feed an addiction to narcotics — or reselling the drugs.

Special Justice Department agents also mine the data for signs of criminal use of prescription drugs.

“We can’t let any more time pass on this. We need to fund this,” Attorney General Kamala Harris said Monday. “Each day matters, and each day someone is out there abusing drugs or a physician is abusing the rights of their license and they need to be caught.”

Harris is sponsoring SB 809 to to modernize and streamline the program, and to add additional staff investigators. To raise the necessary $6 million a year, the bill raises fees on prescribing professionals and taxes drug manufacturers who operate in the state.

The bill’s author, Mark DeSaulnier (D-Danville), has tried to boost funding for CURES three times before. But this time, he’s won provisional support from the California Medical Association.

“Before I prescribe a potent narcotic on a new patient I would always want to see what their prescription history was,” said CMA board member Dr. Bob Wailes, who relies on CURES as a pain management consultant for Tri-City Med Center and Scripps Memorial Hospital in San Diego County.

“If they’re addicted to medicine we want to know about it,” Wailes said. “If they’re diverting the medicines to other people and selling, we need to be aware of that so we don’t keep giving them prescriptions.”

Wailes thinks any legislation to increase funding for the program should also make it easier for doctors to participate. He says the current paper process can take two weeks. So far just 13,000 prescribing doctors in California participate.

But while the CMA supports efforts to modernize and expand the database, the group believes the state should foot the bill.

The California Retailers Association opposes SB809 for a different reason.

The legislation would require its members — which include chain drugstores CVS, Rite Aid, Target and Walgreens — to consult the CURES database before filling a prescription.

“The actual program as it exists today has been so poorly funded, it’s really not practical for our usage,” said association president Bill Dombrowski.

For example, he claimed, it can take six weeks for CURES database managers to answer an email query. No one's going to want to wait that long for a prescription, Dombrowski said.  

“Let’s talk after you get it working about how we can use it and participate in it," Dombrowski said. "But let’s not put in a statute that says we have to participate in something that isn’t even fixed yet.”

Despite similar concerns raised by various industry representatives at the Senate Committee on Business, Professions, and Economic Development, lawmakers passed the measure by 7-2.

If the bill fails, funds for the CURES database run dry on July 1.