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Attorney general seeks drug database funds
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — Legislation that would provide funding for California's substance-abuse tracking system passed its first committee on Monday at the urging of state Attorney General Kamala Harris.

The state's prescription drug database allows doctors and pharmacists to quickly review patients' substance history as a way to deter drug abuse and to make sure patients aren't taking harmful combinations of drugs. Harris wants money to maintain and upgrade the database and to pay for teams of agents that would track doctors who improperly prescribe large quantities of controlled substances.

The lack of funding for the system has been a concern because of the number of patient deaths linked to doctors overprescribing certain medications.

Harris and other proponents said an upgraded database is needed to combat a growing problem in which prescription drug abuse has overtaken illicit drugs and accidents as a leading cause of deaths.

"This is literally about saving lives," Harris said at a Capitol news conference before the bill was approved on a 7-2 vote by the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee. "We have an epidemic."

The legislation, which now goes to the Governance and Finance Committee, would impose fees on medical care providers, drug manufacturers and health insurance plans to upgrade and maintain the database.

Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, said the program will end in July unless lawmakers approve his SB809, which would raise nearly $9 million annually. Providers would pay a 1.2 percent premium on their annual licensing fees, ranging from $2 for pharmacists and registered nurse practitioners to $9 for physicians and $10 for podiatrists.

California was the first to adopt a prescription drug tracking program, he said, but would be one of just two states that lack such a program if it is allowed to lapse.

His bill also would require all doctors and pharmacies to use the system. Currently, less than 7 percent of those licensed to prescribe or dispense narcotics are enrolled in program.

Previous bills that would provide permanent funding for the program died in two previous years. This year's version was supported by law enforcement groups and the California Pharmacists Association during Monday's hearing.

However, it was opposed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, which supports funding the database but objects to paying a fee to fund the attorney general's enforcement teams.

Harris and DeSaulnier said the problem has grown well beyond individual doctors or patients abusing drugs. The sale of illegal prescription drugs funds the operations of organized crime organizations, they said, and merits attention from statewide law enforcement.