California can target bad physicians, fatal overdoses

Someone needs to ask Kamala Harris how much she thinks a life is worth.

The California attorney general, who was San Francisco’s district attorney before assuming statewide office, has information at her fingertips that could be used to stop doctors from overprescribing deadly medicine. But her excuse for not taking action is the cost.

The Los Angeles Times, in one part of a series about prescription drug overdoses, highlighted the power of something called the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System, more commonly referred to as CURES. That statewide system was created to document what prescriptions patients were filling and where they were doing it so they could not use one prescription repeatedly at different locations. Physicians, pharmacists and the Attorney General’s Office have access to the information.

But another way that the information can be used is to track those doctors who overprescribe their patients strong narcotics, such as pain medicines and opiates. In fact, according to the Times, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that states that gather such prescription information do exactly that. Six states with databases like California’s already do so.

The Attorney General’s Office says it cannot track rogue doctors because of the costs. The office first told the Times that its system is barely functional enough to do the job it was set up to do. It would need an influx of $2.8 million to fix it and $1.6 million more per year to keep it running smoothly, according to the Times.

The problem also is manpower. In 2011, to save money, Gov. Jerry Brown eliminated the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, which was in charge or running CURES. Now, one full-time employee in the Attorney General’s Office runs the entire system. Even if there are leads, a spokesman said, the Department of Justice does not possess the resources to follow up on them.

The state’s failure to catch overprescribing doctors is deadly. The Times obtained a private database that catalogues prescriptions, and it found that many doctors who were later busted for overprescribing drugs had patients who overdosed and died.

Tracking down doctors who overprescribe medicine will not single-handedly fix our country’s overdose problem. Addiction is a complicated problem, and no singular fix will prevent all these deaths. But doing nothing when there is a readily available tool is wrong. Harris cannot hide behind the funding issue while some doctors dole out drugs in unsafe ways and people die using the drugs they obtain.

Yes, California is short on money, and it will likely continue to be fiscally constrained. Even so, the Attorney General’s Office should find a way to stop doctors who are wrongly prescribing drugs. Even if the office stops one doctor and it saves one life, it will be worth the cost.

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