Drug tracker can save lives, but it needs support 

The legislation is yet to be introduced, but lawmakers need to stand up and support the funding and expansion of a state system that tracks prescriptions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has called abuse of prescription drugs an epidemic. Overdoses from powerful narcotics are not only costly for the medical system but, in the worst cases, deadly.

California has a system that could help crack down on prescription abuse, but it is on life support because of state budget cuts. Eighteen months ago, Gov. Jerry Brown cut all funding for the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement. That agency staffed and ran the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System, a database that can track where patients fill their prescriptions and help stop them from going to multiple doctors or pharmacies to obtain the same drugs.

Following news coverage about this system’s inadequate staffing, state Attorney General Kamala Harris diverted money from federal grants and other agencies to keep it functioning through July, according to The Associated Press. Harris estimated the cost to upgrade the system at $3.8 million; $1.6 million would be needed annually to run it properly.

State lawmakers should take a long-term view when considering this funding. Due to the health care costs and loss of life caused by prescription drug abuse, the state will likely save money in the long run if it properly funds this system.

Harris is seeking another $43 million to create enforcement teams to ensure that the doctors, pharmacists and medical providers who are required by law to report controlled substances are actually doing so. These teams would be able to monitor the system for anomalies that could suggest abuse and then investigate them.

State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, is reported to be backing Harris in her request for funding, and hopefully more lawmakers will line up behind the attorney general after the bill formally is introduced, which The Associated Press reports that Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, should do in the next few weeks.

One proposal that Harris has put forward is for providers and drug manufacturers to pay a small premium on their annual licensing fees to help pay for the ongoing costs for the program. The AP reports that the California Medical Association wants the money to come from the general fund instead. The details of the funding can be fleshed out in the coming months, but everyone involved should keep their eyes on the final goal: creating and maintaining a system that allows the state to track, flag and punish people who abuse drugs — whether they are doctors or patients.

Fixing this system will not single-handedly end the epidemic of prescription drug abuse, but these proposed solutions would be a step in the right direction.

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