By Christina Jewett, California Watch
SACRAMENTO -- The state's prescription drug monitoring program, which was dealt a major blow amid state budget cuts, is still operating but may run out of money by the end of this year, according to the attorney general's office.
The program, called CURES, is used by law enforcement to track the prescribing of doctors suspected of dispensing too many addictive narcotic pain medications. Doctors also query the database to determine whether patients are "doctor shopping," or seeking potent drugs from multiple sources to feed an addiction.
The attorney general's office is working with health care agencies, grant funders and federal authorities to try to identify stable funding for the program, according to Shum Preston, a spokesman for state Attorney General Kamala Harris.
The program was limited to a small part-time staff as the state Department of Justice absorbed $70 million in budget cuts this year and last.
"Our core goal is satisfying law enforcement requests, and so far we're doing that," Preston said.
Unintentional overdose deaths related to opioid painkillers have soared from about 3,000 in 2000 to more than 15,500 in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Given the rising rates of addiction attributed to the pain medications, there has been no worse time to cut the program, said Dr. Lee Snook, a Sacramento physician who treats pain patients.
"We would not like to see it go away," Snook said. "In fact, we'd like to see it strengthened."
Snook, an advisory member of the California Medical Association, said he routinely uses the program to examine whether pain patients are seeking drugs from multiple sources. He said his instinct is to trust patients, but he has learned from experience to trust, but verify.
"When dealing with addictive behavior, many of us get fooled," he said. "I get fooled. I've been doing this for 20 years."
While a federal prescription drug monitoring program was approved as part of a 2005 law, it has never been funded, Snook said. Most states operate monitoring programs, which have been cited in a White House report on prescription drug abuse as a key to stemming the problem.
According to the CDC, the amount of morphine-based drugs has soared seven-fold over 15 years in the U.S. Since 1997, the amount distributed through the pharmaceutical supply chain went from 96 milligrams of morphine per person to 700 milligrams in 2007, enough for each person in the U.S. to take a 5 milligram Vicodin every four hours for three weeks.
Preston said part-time staffers operating the CURES program are working to register doctors to access the CURES database. He said they no longer have the resources to perform daily technical support and answer general calls from pharmacies and others.