On May 30, the California Senate passed Senate Bill 809 (DeSaulnier) unanimously. This bill has as its primary goal the continued funding of the Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System (CURES) in the California Department of Justice. Over the past year, considerable attention has been brought to the issue of abuse of prescription painkillers nationwide and across all benefit systems. Well-publicized research in California by the California Workers' Compensation Institute (CWCI) and multi-state analyses by the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Inc. (NCCI) and the Workers' Compensation Research Institute (WCRI) have quantified the tragic effects of over-prescribing these medications.
SB 809 seeks to do more, however, than simply develop a stable funding source for this program. The recent Senate action, while important, demonstrates that not all issues surrounding the CURES program are likely to be resolved in 2013. As a series of investigative reports done by the Los Angeles Times pointed out, participation in the CURES program by physicians is not mandatory, and there is no adequate mechanism in place to report unusual prescribing patterns by physicians to the Medical Board of California. While the funding legislation for CURES will address the latter problem, there is still no requirement that prescribers access the database before prescribing a Schedule II - IV controlled substance. However, all prescribers and dispensers will be required to register with the CURES system, which in and of itself is an important development for the Department of Justice and the Medical Board in their efforts to identify and investigate abusive prescription patterns and to combat diversion of the medications for illicit purposes.
Also, stripped from the bill was a tax on manufacturers of controlled substances that would have been used for enhanced law enforcement capabilities throughout the state. This was a critical development that policy makers still need to address, either in this legislation or through the budget process.
Even though a targeted tax on manufacturers is not palatable to the Legislature, the need to fund better enforcement of the laws governing illicit sales of prescription drugs remains a high priority. The funding in the current bill will allow the CURES program to be maintained and improved, but law enforcement will still not have what it needs to investigate physicians and pharmacists who are violating the law and bring them to justice.
While California's workers' compensation system does not have the same level of protections against prescription drug abuse as other state workers' compensation systems, there are resources at our disposal to limit the danger of these medications.
The Medical Treatment Utilization Schedule, utilization review, and Independent Medical Review (IMR) recently added by Senate Bill 863 will assist payers in their effort to curb overutilization of these medications while still addressing the very real clinical need for relief from acute pain and management of chronic pain resulting from an occupational injury. The Division of Workers' Compensation is expected to release new guidelines on pain management later this year that should further assist in this process. And the workers' compensation system, like all other healthcare financing programs, will benefit from the enactment of SB 809. It's a good start, but we are a long way away from declaring this problem solved.
The abuse of high powered prescription pain medication is a public health crisis with workers' compensation implications. The path to a solution requires the active participation of the medical and pharmacy communities, drug manufacturers, law enforcement, medical benefit payers — whether public programs, private group health plans or workers' compensation insurers and self-insured employers — and state and federal agencies and boards overseeing the development and use of these medications.
Progress is being made, but more work needs to be done. The goal is not simply for payers to be better able to say "no". The goal is also not simply being able to avoid the costs of these medications and the complications their abuse creates and have those costs be borne somewhere else. The goal is delivering the highest quality treatment for an injured worker. A back injury, for example, doesn't automatically require surgery in all circumstances any more than it requires an injured worker to face the prospect of drug dependency.
If we use the tools at our disposal compassionately and intelligently and if we continue to press policy makers and regulators to take all steps necessary to protect patients from the improper use of these medications, then we will be able to measure success in more than dollars saved. If Governor Brown gets SB 809 on his desk and signs it, it will become effective immediately. That's a good first step, but there will still be much work to do.