California legislation would help track drug-overdose deaths

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A view of the California State Capitol in Sacramento.

The state Assembly on Monday approved legislation that would require county coroners to report drug overdose deaths to the state medical board.

The bill was drafted in response to a Los Angeles Times investigation regarding deaths from prescription drug overdoses.

In nearly half of the cases reviewed by the newspaper, the drug that caused the overdose had been prescribed directly to the deceased, as opposed to drugs that were stolen or prescribed to another patient. The Times found one doctor was linked to as many as 16 dead patients.

Current law already requires a coroner to report to a regulatory board when they determine that a death may be the result of gross negligence by a doctor, but according to a legislative analysis of the bill, reporting is not strictly enforced. Only four reports were received by the state medical board in 2011-12, including one drug-related death.

Democratic Sen. Ted Lieu of Torrance says his bill, SB62, would help the medical board track overdose deaths and assist officials search for patterns among those deaths. The state medical board supports the bill.

"We do need to help our agencies to connect the dots and address the very challenging problem of prescription drug abuse," Assemblyman Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said.

Republican Assemblyman Curt Hagman of Chino Hills opposed the bill, saying physicians may be reported even if they properly are prescribing medications because there isn't a distinction between causes of an overdose.

The legislation cleared the Assembly on Monday with a 54-24 vote, returning to the Senate for a final vote.

The Assembly also approved a related bill, SB809, which would impose a $6 annual fee on certain medical providers to pay for the state's prescription drug database.

The database allows doctors and pharmacists to quickly review patients' substance history as a way to deter drug abuse and to make sure patients aren't taking harmful combinations of drugs.

Lawmakers say that database, the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System, would be suspended without new funding.

The legislation from Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, passed the Assembly, 71-0, and returns to the Senate for a procedural vote.

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