Proposed Law Could Help Prevent Prescription Drug Overdoses
Last November, the Los Angeles Times published an investigative report entitled “Legal Drugs, Deadly Outcomes.” The report told the stories of six people who died of prescription drug overdoses in the course of 18 months, highlighting the nation’s high incidence of such fatalities, with prescription drug overdoses causing more deaths than heroin and cocaine combined. Prescription drug overdoses have also been partially responsible for doubling the number of deaths related to drug overdoses in the United States in the past ten years.
“In many cases, people are overdosing on drugs prescribed by their doctors,” explained California personal injury lawyer James Ballidis.
In four Southern California counties that the Los Angeles Times investigated, almost half of those who died from a prescription drug overdose had a doctor’s prescription for at least one of the drugs that contributed to or caused the death:
- • There were 3,733 deaths caused by prescription drug overdoses in Los Angeles, Orange, Ventura and San Diego counties from 2006-2011.
- • In 47 percent of the deaths, the deceased had a prescription for at least one of the drugs.
- • Within the relevant geographic areas, 71 doctors (0.1 percent of all practicing doctors) wrote the prescriptions that led to 298 deaths.
These statistics demonstrate that a very small number of physicians are responsible for a large percentage—17 percent—of the prescription drug deaths linked to doctors.
These 71 doctors also had three or more fatal overdoses among their patients and one doctor alone had prescribed drugs involved in the deaths of 16 patients. The doctors linked to multiple deaths were primarily pain specialists, general practitioners or psychiatrists who were away from the scrutiny in hospitals and group practices. Only four had been convicted of drug offenses, and a fifth was awaiting trial at the time of the report. The remainder had not faced any criminal prosecution, and the majority had no records of complaints with the Medical Board of California.
New Requirements for Prescription Drug Deaths
In response to the Los Angeles Times investigation, the chairman of a senate committee overseeing the California Medical Board has now announced that he is introducing a bill requiring coroners to report prescription drug deaths to the Medical Board.
The Chairman, Senator Curren D. Price Jr., believes that there is currently a disconnect that results in the Medical Board not receiving information about prescription drug deaths. If a bill passes requiring coroners to report these deaths, that disconnect can be eliminated and the Medical Board will be made aware if a doctor is routinely prescribing drugs that cause or contribute to overdoses and can conduct an investigation.
By ensuring the Medical Board is more informed about doctors who are repeatedly involved in overdose cases, it should be easier for the medical board to take action and to suspend or revoke the licenses of doctors who amount to little more than pill pushers.
Preventing Prescription Drug Abuse
California already has some protections in place designed to limit prescription drug abuse. For example, California has a prescription drug monitoring system that records when prescriptions are filled and consolidates the information to make it easy to see if a patient has multiple prescriptions.
Doctors can also be held civilly and criminally responsible for prescribing drugs improperly. In 2012, for example, a California doctor named Lisa Tseng was charged with second-degree murder and 21 other felony counts for improperly prescribing opiates and benzodiazepines. Multiple patients died after Tseng prescribed pills, and as a result, prosecutors are charging her with murder under a theory of implied malice. Dr. Tseng, they allege, should have known of the dangers of her behavior because of the prior deaths and yet still wrote new prescriptions anyway.
The families of patients who died as a result of prescription overdoses are also suing Tseng. When a physician prescribes a drug without a legitimate medical reason or if a physician is negligent in prescribing, the doctor may be committing medical malpractice. If the patient overdoses on the drug, the patient or surviving family members can thus take legal action against the physician to recover compensation. Damages available under California law include payment of medical costs and lost wages as well as additional compensation for pain and suffering, emotional distress or wrongful death.
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