Emotional Hearing about Future of Medical Board of California

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A bureaucratic hearing in Sacramento took an emotional Monday morning, as parent after parent told state legislators how their children died from overdosing on prescription drugs.

The parents who testified during the Medical Board of California’s “sunset review” hearing all said the agency should do more to crack down on doctors who abuse their prescription-writing powers.

Tammy Smick, of Downey, says she’s outraged the doctors who gave prescriptions to her drug-addicted son Alex are still practicing medicine. “What has the California Medical Board done about the death of our son? As far as I can tell, absolutely nothing, and that is just shameful,” she told the panel of senators and assembly members.

The hearing was part of a regular oversight process called a “sunset review.” Under this type of review legislators evaluate the effectiveness of a board to determine whether to change its powers, operational scope or mission. Prescription drug abuse has become a flashpoint in this process in part because of a 2012 Los Angeles Times investigation revealing that during a six-year window, 30 southern California patients died from prescription drug overdoses while their doctors were under board investigation.

“From my perspective the Medical Board can be doing a lot more,” testified April Rovero, whose son died from a drug overdose in 2009 after he received hundreds of pills from a doctor who had been under board investigation for three years. “Whether it’s regulations that need to be changed or whatever, we need it to step up to the job. Our families need to be protected.”

Board President Sharon Levine commended the Los Angeles Times investigation during her testimony. She told legislators the panel’s powers are limited, because it can’t investigate doctors without a formal complaint. “Complaints regarding prescription drug-related offenses can be somewhat difficult for the board to obtain. In many instances patients who are receiving prescription drugs in a manner that is not within the standard of practice are not interested in bringing the complaint to the board.”

When asked whether legislators should grant the board the power to proactively investigate doctors, Levine stayed neutral. “I honestly can’t answer that ahead of a policy discussion at the board about what that would look like,” she said.

Levine did endorse a bill giving the agency more information about overdose-related deaths, and said she supports increasing revenue through application fees or other means to help boost the state’s prescription-tracking database.

The Board is being given one month to respond in writing to questions raised during Monday’s hearing. Legislators have until the end of the year to extend of revise the Board’s mission.

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