Parents of Rx Overdose Victims Plead for Change

By McCarton Ackerman 03/12/13

After hearing family testimonies, California lawmakers push for a database to identify doctors who overprescribe.

Mother and daughter who lost a family
member to an Rx overdose.
Photo via

After hearing emotional testimony from parents whose children died of drug overdoses, lawmakers in Sacramento called Monday for the Medical Board of California to use a statewide prescription database (known as CURES) to help identify doctors who overprescribe narcotic drugs. "If we are going to take seriously the role of patient protection, then we have to be proactive in determining if there is a pattern of overprescribing," said Assemblyman Richard Gordon, who co-chairs a joint legislative panel that oversees the medical board. Currently, the board only launches investigations in response to complaints. But Gordon said: "I don't think that the complaint-driven system has produced the appropriate results." In California, CURES is primarily used to identify "doctor shopping" addicts who obtain prescriptions from multiple doctors, but technical shortcomings in the database and a limited budget make these investigations infrequent. An investigative report from the Los Angeles Times found that nearly half of the prescription drug overdose deaths in Southern California from 2006 through 2011 were partly due to drugs prescribed by doctors. 71 physicians were responsible for three or more overdoses, while several had a dozen or more patients who died. In most cases, the board was unaware of the patients' deaths. Medical board President Sharon Levine blamed the problem largely on California's mandatory physician training that emphasizes using potent drugs to treat pain. "We do have a physician workforce that we need to re-educate," she said, "In many ways, physicians have been misled by people exhorting them to treat pain."

Some physician groups expressed concern that aggressive and frequent CURES investigations would discourage doctors from prescribing the medications for legitimate pain treatment. But the grieving parents in Sacramento, many of whom showed up wearing shirts bearing the word "ENOUGH," argued it would be a price well worth it. "I'm a contractor. In my industry, if somebody dies on my job, the job is immediately stopped and everybody goes home," said Tim Smick, whose 20-year-old son Alex fatally overdosed last year on doctor prescribed drugs. "How many more deaths will be allowed before the California medical board stops dangerous doctors who fail to adhere to their own industry standard?" James Kennedy, from Orange County, said his son bought methadone and Xanax from a doctor who had been dubbed the "candy man" for overprescribing drugs, but is still practicing medicine. Kennedy, whose son overdosed three years ago, said: "The medical board does nothing to police their own."

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.