SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) -- The board charged with overseeing physicians in California lacks the authority to identify those who might be overprescribing pain killers and other drugs, a problem that has led to overdose deaths and criminal charges against a handful of doctors in recent years.
The president of the Medical Board of California on Monday responded to criticism that the body has failed to properly police its ranks. Sharon Levine told a joint legislative committee that the state's prescription drug tracking system is underfunded and that the board cannot track doctors even if the program had sufficient money.
The testimony came in response to a Los Angeles Times investigation last year that found drugs prescribed by physicians caused or contributed to nearly half the accidental deaths involving prescription drugs in four Southern California counties between 2006 and 2011.
Levine, a physician appointed to the board in 2009, said a complaint is needed to begin a review and determine whether the prescribing doctor bears any responsibility.
"Complaints regarding prescription drug-related offenses can be somewhat difficult for the board to obtain," Levine testified. "In many instances, patients who are receiving prescription drugs in a manner that is not within the standard practice are not interested in bringing a complaint to the board."
Assemblyman Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, questioned whether the complaint-driven process that Levine described is the proper process to use in trying to protect patients from unsafe prescribing.
"What about physicians who are purposely overprescribing and looking and seeking out these individuals?" Hernandez said. "Is it not the responsibility of the board to seek out those individuals, and how do you do it?"
Levine said the medical board lacks the authority to use the state's tracking system - called the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System to identify doctors who may be purposely overprescribing unless it is acting in response to a specific complaint. Legislation would be needed to fix that.
One bill that has been introduced to address prescription drug overdoses is from Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles. It would require county coroners to report any death that is related to prescription drug use to the medical board. Levine said the board supports that effort.
Lawmakers generally agreed that the tracking system needs more money. Attorney General Kamala Harris has estimated that about $3.8 million is needed to upgrade it.
The questions about the prescription drug overdoses were part of a larger hearing into reauthorizing the medical board, a decision the committee will make later.
In its review of six years' worth of overdose statistics, the Times reported that at least 30 Southern California patients died while their doctors were under investigation. The board sanctioned all but one of those 12 doctors, yet in most cases doctors are allowed to continue writing prescriptions after they are sanctioned.
The Times found that a disproportionate number of the deaths were associated with just 71 doctors, a fraction of those practicing in the four counties.
Four doctors have been convicted of drug offenses in connection with their prescriptions, while a fifth is awaiting trial on charges of second-degree murder in the overdose deaths of three patients.
Family members whose loved ones died as a result of prescription drug overdoses also testified Monday and urged significant changes to prevent future deaths.
April Rovero recounted how her son, a student at Arizona State University, was found dead in his apartment near the campus a day before he was supposed to return home. She said Joey Rovero had seen Dr. Lisa Tseng, a Southern California doctor who has pleaded not guilty to charges that her prescribing led to the death of several patients.
After complaining of wrist pain and anxiety, he walked out of her office with "what might as well as have been a loaded weapon," said April Rovero, who founded the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse after her son's death.
"The medical board in place today is failing to keep our families safe from overprescribing physicians," she told the committee. "It is not holding them accountable for the pain and suffering they're causing."