State cuts prescription drug monitoring amid spike in pain pill deaths

by Christina Jewett, California Watch

While federal authorities are calling the spike in prescription painkiller deaths an epidemic, California is dismantling a system that the White House identifies as a promising method to tackle the problem.

The CURES prescription drug monitoring program enables doctors to track people who shop from doctor to doctor seeking a Vicodin or OxyContin high.

The program also can help law enforcement connect the dots in illegal prescribing cases. A White House report [PDF] on the nation’s prescription drug crisis identified the tracking systems, which are in place in most states, as one major tool in helping to reduce drug diversion.

Funds for staff to oversee the system are a casualty of $70 million in budget cuts to the state Department of Justice for this year and next, according to the attorney general’s office. One Bay Area entrepreneur has submitted a ballot initiative [PDF] to restore the tracking system funding through a drug fee but has not yet started to gather signatures.

The cuts came just before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a report showing that the rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths has more than tripled during the past decade.

The CDC estimates that 40 people die each day from methadone, Vicodin, OxyContin and Opana overdoses.

Researchers identified a trio of trends underscoring the growth in prescription painkiller use. The overdose death toll since 1998 has nearly quadrupled, even as admissions to drug rehabilitation have jumped sixfold. At the same time, sales of the medications have increased four times. The CDC estimates that there was enough hydrocodone (an ingredient in Vicodin) being made in 2010 to medicate every American adult for a month.

Analyses in the CDC study show that sales of the opiate painkillers and death rates are not as high in California as in many other states. Still, they are rivaling car crashes in the number of Americans killed each year.

The state does not lack high-profile cases of people addicted to prescription painkillers. King of Pop Michael Jackson reportedly was hooked on Demerol before he died of an overdose of another drug. Corey Haim, a 1980s heartthrob, died after struggling with prescription drug addiction; his death was linked to a major OxyContin ring.

Outside of Hollywood, the drugs’ effects can be devastating. Robert Pack, an East Bay technology entrepreneur, lost his two young children after they were struck by a woman who was under the influence of alcohol and Vicodin.

Pack helped convert the state’s prescription drug monitoring system from a paper-based system that could take several months to produce a report about a patient. With his and others’ financial support, the CURES program was upgraded in 2009 to a database that can be accessed instantly by doctors and pharmacists who register.

Pack has filed paperwork for a ballot initiative that would levy a quarter-cent fee on prescription pain drugs and use the money to provide stable funding for the program. He said signature-gathering will begin if his ballot language is approved by the attorney general’s office.

Pack said he pursued a similar effort with state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Walnut Creek, but the bill did not advance.

‘I keep navigating new paths, new roads,’ Pack said. ‘I have plenty of years ahead to do it. I lost my two children due to it, and I have plenty of years ahead.’

The California Legislature considered but did not pass a 2001 bill meant to institute prevention strategies for drug overdose deaths. Lawmakers passed a bill by former Sen. Mark Ridley-Thomas that set up a pilot project in seven counties to distribute a drug that counteracts opiate drug overdoses.