The number of drug-overdose deaths in California -- most of which are from prescription medications -- increased by 31 percent from 1999 to 2010, according to a new report.
However, the Golden State fared better than many states with the 15th lowest drug-overdose mortality rate in the U.S., with 10.6 per 100,000 people suffering fatal overdoses in 2010, according to "Prescription Drug Abuse: Strategies to Stop the Epidemic," which was released by the nonprofit Trust for America's Health. And while most states received a score of 6 or less, California rated an 8 on a scale of 10 for "promising indicators" of strategies to curb prescription drug abuse, the report found.
"We've been working at it, but we can do better," said Billie Weiss, associate director of the Southern California Injury and Violence Research Prevention Program at UCLA's Fielding School of Public Health. "We can be using our pharmacy prescribing database to really keep better track of physicians who are overprescribing ... We have drug shoppers who go to a bunch of physicians and get prescriptions; using that prescribing database would really help identify some of those folks."
While California has an active prescription-drug monitoring program called CURES for certain controlled substances, it does not require -- as 16 other states currently do -- mandatory use by its prescribers, the report noted. The state also does not have a law requiring or permitting a pharmacist to mandate identification prior to dispensing a controlled substance.
The state was given points for many indicators, including having a "doctor-shopping law" and a "good Samaritan law." The first prohibits patients from withholding information about prior prescriptions from their health care providers, while the latter provides some immunity or lessening of a sentence for those seeking to help themselves or others experiencing an overdose.
Nationwide, overdose deaths involving prescription painkillers have quadrupled since 1999 -- and now outnumber those from heroin and cocaine combined.
"Prescription-drug abuse, misuse and overdose is a very real epidemic, and it warrants a strong public-health response," said Andrea Gielen, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Johns Hopkins.
California Gov. Jerry Brown signed two bills last month aiming to curb prescription-drug abuse. The first, SB 670, allows the state medical board to inspect and copy medical records of a deceased patient without a court order or the consent of next of kin.
The second, SB 809, increases practitioners' licensing fees in order to fund an overhaul of the CURES database, which some doctors consider too complex.
April Rovero of San Ramon lost her 21-year-old son Joseph "Joey" John Rovero III in December 2009, when the Arizona State University student died from a combination of prescription drugs and alcohol. The Rowland Heights doctor who prescribed Joey the drugs is now facing second-degree murder charges for that death and those of two other young men.
Rovero, founder of National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse, said she was pleased the bills passed but argued they do not go far enough. SB 670, for example, should have made it a requirement that doctors use the CURES database.
A third bill, SB 62, was vetoed by the governor over funding concerns and would have required county coroners to notify the medical board any time they determine a death was caused by a narcotic. Sen. Ted W. Lieu, D-Torrance, who authored the bill, said he'll be checking to see whether coroners would be willing to do this voluntarily.