California’s Innovative Approach to Prescription Drug Abuse


April Rovero’s life was irrevocably changed when her son, Joey, overdosed on a deadly mix of alcohol and prescription medication. Soon after his death, Ms. Rovero, a San Ramon, CA resident, learned that Joey and a group of his college friends visited a doctor nine days earlier to request — and receive — an illicit prescription for oxycodone and Xanax. The doctor who gave the prescription would later be convicted of three counts of second-degree murder in relation to patient overdose deaths.

Over the last decade, prescription drug abuse has risen to epidemic proportions. The U.S. claims less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but consumes over 80 percent of the world’s opioid supply with 44 Americans dying from a prescription painkiller overdose every day.

More troubling is that three of every four prescription drug overdoses today are caused by opioid medications, oftentimes obtained legally, but then used in ways other than those recommended by physicians.

This was the case when a prescription drug addict who had been popping pills and drinking alcohol while driving jumped the curb and struck Alana (7 years) and Troy (10 years) Pack as they were on their way home from buying ice cream in Danville, CA with their Mother on a Sunday afternoon. It was later discovered that the driver had obtained prescription painkillers from several doctors at the same hospital. Since then, Bob and Carmen Pack, Alana and Troy’s parents, have been lead advocates to end prescription drug abuse.

In the face of this growing crisis, we must do everything possible to prevent the misuse and illicit diversion of pharmaceutical drugs. Public safety officials recognize the magnitude of this problem and how large the illicit prescription drug industry has become. One study suggests the societal costs of prescription opioid abuse in the U.S. was estimated to be $55.7 billion in 2007.

One of the more effective strategies to combat this abuse is Prescription Drug Monitoring Programs (PDMPs).

California’s program — the Controlled Substances Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES) — is an electronic database that provides doctors, pharmacists and law enforcement with critical real time data on prescribing and dispensing practices across the state to identify emerging trends and potential bad actors.

Forty-eight other states have also established these databases to help collect information on controlled substances from doctors and pharmacists and provide them with valuable feedback to help reduce the misuse of prescription medication.

As a Senator in the California legislature, I partnered with April Rovero, Bob Pack, and Attorney General Kamala Harris to introduce legislation to address technology and administrative challenges in CURES and improve the program’s overall effectiveness. Over the past two years, the state has utilized the funding provided in our bill to enroll every appropriate doctor and pharmacist in the state and make critical upgrades to the system.

Today, California’s new and improved “CURES 2.0” program was launched. I am proud our efforts have generated significant improvements to our state’s system, but problems remain. A state-by-state approach does not address concerns of “doctor shopping” across state lines and end so-called “pill mills” in other states. California should be an example for the nation, which is why I am working towards the goal of creating a national database to help end the prescription drug abuse epidemic. It is my hope that a comprehensive national program will help families avoid the suffering endured by the Rovero and Pack families. No family should ever lose a loved one to prescription drug abuse.

Mark DeSaulnier is a Member of Congress whose district covers the majority of Contra Costa County, CA.

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