State governments and health officials across the United States are grappling with what to do about the growing number of people who die from prescription opioid pain medication – now estimated at over 16,000 a year.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that drug overdose deaths have tripled since 1990, and that more people die from prescription pain medication than from heroin and cocaine combined.
In California, as many other states, tracking these deaths is difficult.
The California Assembly has just passed a bill that will help the state’s Medical Board keep track of the overdoses and look for patterns and practices in the prescribing of pain medicines.
The sponsor of the legislation is State Senator Ted Lieu.
“It is time for us to empower regulators with the information and data they need to help stem the epidemic of prescription overdose deaths,” Sen. Ted W. Lieu said about Senate Bill 62.
“In too many of these cases, the deadly drugs came straight from a bottle with the dead person’s own name on it, with a legal prescription by a provider.”
SB 62, which has already been approved by the California Senate, now goes to Governor Jerry Brown’s desk. The bill would guarantee state licensing boards have data on drug-related deaths as soon as possible to determine the role licensed professionals like doctors and pharmacists may play in patient prescription drug deaths.
The California Medical Board supports the legislation and helped propose an amendment that would require county coroners to report prescription drug related deaths.
Any information that can assist the Medical Board in its role of consumer protection is imperative and welcome,” said Cassandra Hockenson, JD, Public Affairs Manager for the California Medical Board.
To underscore the Medical Board’s attention to this issue, the two most recent releases on its website deal with doctors being arrested for prescription irregularities.
Senator Lieu is from the Los Angeles area. He points out that in Los Angeles County alone, where drug overdose is the third leading cause of death and injury, results from the county’s 2011 health survey showed 5.2 percent of adults, or an estimated 379,000 people, reported misusing prescription drugs in the previous year.
Lieu’s bill would require coroners to provide information to the Medical Board of California, under specific circumstances and in confidence for deaths attributed to Schedule II-IV drugs. Such data directly from coroners to regulators would paint a better picture about where people are getting drugs, how much they have when they die of an overdose, and whether they were under the care of a prescriber who may have been prescribing too much.
The analysis found that in nearly half of the cases where prescription drug overdose was listed as the cause of death, there was a direct connection to a prescribing physician.
The report found that more than 80 of the doctors whose names were listed on prescription bottles found at the home or on the body of a decedent had been the prescribing physician for 3 or more dead patients, including one doctor who was linked to as many as 16 dead patients.