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Atty. Gen. Kamala Harris wants funding for prescription database

March 4, 2013 |  8:20 am

Kamala Harris
California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris is urging lawmakers to fund improvements to a state database system that could help identify physicians who recklessly prescribe prescription drugs.

In an interview with The Times, Harris said she wanted to use the state database, known as CURES, to draw a bead on doctors who abuse their prescribing powers. The controversial step has been discussed for years, but never adopted.

Harris, whose office operates CURES, called for upgrading the database and establishing two criminal enforcement teams to investigate suspicious patterns of prescribing. State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) and state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier (D-Concord) have introduced legislation to carry out the changes, which would cost an estimated $9.6 million.

Under the proposal, CURES would automatically alert authorities to prescribing that appears "questionable or excessive" so "we can look into it," Harris told The Times. Doctors who write large numbers of prescriptions for narcotic painkillers, for instance, or for drug combinations popular among addicts could come under scrutiny.

"Any legislator who questions the relevance or necessity of this should check with their local police chief," Harris said. "They'll tell them what's going on on the street."

CURES, diminished by years of budget cuts, is now used mostly to identify "doctor-shopping" addicts, who feed their habit by obtaining multiple prescriptions from different doctors. Even that type of identification is done on a very limited basis because of the system's technical shortcomings and bare-bones budget.

Harris, a career prosecutor who was elected attorney general in 2010, has been outspoken on issues such as guns, gangs and gay marriage but comparatively quiet on the state's prescription drug abuse problem.

A Times article published in December showed how the state's failure to tap information in CURES had allowed incompetent or corrupt doctors to overprescribe narcotics for years before authorities learned about their conduct through other means.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged states to use prescription monitoring programs to look for signs of reckless behavior by doctors, and at least six states do.

CURES — formally the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System — contains detailed information from pharmacies on the prescriptions they fill, including the names of patients and their doctors. The system has existed in various forms since 1939 and was once a model for other states.

Currently, it is "on life support," in the words of a Harris aide. It has a budget of $400,000 a year and is overseen by a single employee in the attorney general's office.

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-- Lisa Girion and Scott Glover

Photo: California Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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