Prescription Drug Program in California Needs Lifeline

California budget cuts may eliminate an essential computer monitoring program that tracks prescription drug abusers.

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Traditional police work wouldn’t have nabbed Dr. Lisa Barden for visiting 43 pharmacies to illegally obtain tens of thousands of pain pills to fuel her own addiction.


Nor would it have busted Dr. Nazar Al Bussam as the top distributor of controlled substances in California over a three-year period in a prescriptions-for-cash scheme.

In both cases, a computer database did the essential sleuth work. The program known as the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System has exposed so-called pill mills that also has led to dozens of convictions in prescription drug abuse cases.

Budget cuts now threaten the program’s existence at a time when the U.S. government reported the number of overdose deaths from powerful painkillers more than tripled over a decade. Future criminal investigations into dirty doctors and those who shop for and sell prescriptions illegally would be severely hampered because information culled from pharmacies would no longer be updated, authorities said.

“It’s like a spider web of information for law enforcement to start their investigations,” said Debra Postil, a Riverside County deputy district attorney who prosecuted Barden. “Without CURES you are going to have old-fashion detective work that won’t be able to tell the bigger picture.”

A decision on whether the program will be spared will be made in the next several weeks, state officials said. Recently the staff overseeing the database has been cut from eight people to just two.

California has the oldest prescription drug monitoring program in the nation. Officials moved to an online tracking system three years ago where prescription information can be accessed by doctors, law enforcement officials and others to ensure patients aren’t abusing drugs.

More than 8,000 doctors and pharmacists have signed up to use CURES, which has more than 100 million prescriptions, since 2009. The system also has been accessed more than 1 million times for patient activity reports.

In all, 37 states have prescription drug monitoring programs but California is the only one in jeopardy of not having an active database, said Jim Giglio, executive director of the Alliance of States With Prescription Monitoring Programs. The remaining states have either legislation pending for a program’s approval or have approved legislation but the database is not up and running yet.

“It’s a tool that’s being widely used,” Giglio said. “Without it, maybe not today, but down the road I think you’ll see higher rates of controlled substances diversion.”

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