Dozens of bereaved parents whose children died from pain-medication overdoses told state legislators Monday that the California Medical Board is failing to protect the public from so-called "dirty doctors" who overprescribe addictive drugs, especially to young adults.
Their reports of a growing epidemic in California mirror national statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which revealed new data recently showing that deaths due to pain medicine overdoses have increased for the 11th year in a row.
The testimony from grieving mothers and fathers, each displaying a framed photograph of their lost loved one, came during a routine review of the California Medical Board in a Joint Oversight Hearing of the state Legislature.
Every 10 years, the Legislature's business and professions committees in the Senate and Assembly must review the performance of the board and approve its continued existence. The process provides an opportunity for the public to weigh in.
On Monday, Bradley V. DeHaven of Granite Bay described himself to the committee as "one of the blessed ones here – my son is still alive."
"This is not a Republican issue, or a Democratic issue, or an Independent Party issue," DeHaven said during a rally later outside the Capitol. "This is everyone's issue."
Other parents joined DeHaven in describing the problem as widespread, particularly in suburban areas. Their complaints to the medical board about doctors writing pain prescriptions for their children seemed to take years for the board to investigate, they said.
"The drug-seeking addicts know exactly which doctors to go to and where to go – and so does our medical board," said Susan Klimusko, a nurse from Simi Valley whose son died of an overdose. "We need action."
Klimusko said the pain-medication habit is particularly hard to break because OxyContin, a widely prescribed drug, and other opioids are very similar to heroin. She said statistics show only 11 percent of users 27 and older are able to overcome an addiction.
Several parents joined the nonprofit advocacy organization Consumer Watchdog in urging that the current medical board be disbanded – and a new one appointed in its place.
One of the problems with the board is that it consists largely of physicians, critics said. Of the current 15 members, eight are physicians or surgeons and seven are public members.
"The medical board does nothing to police its own profession," said James Kennedy, a parent who lost a son to an overdose. "It's like a fox guarding the henhouse. The medical board needs to be removed."
Much of the criticism of the board centered around its refusal recently to increase physician fees by $9 a year in order to help fund a program called CURES, which monitors through the Internet the frequency with which doctors write pain medicine prescriptions.
Critics point to an online video of a board meeting in which Dr. Silvia Diego, a board member, is seen laughing over the prospect that doctors such as herself might have to pay a fee to assist the underfunded CURES program.
"Dr. Diego is laughing while making an argument against a physician license fee increase," said Jamie Court, president of Consumer Watchdog, which posted the video on its website. "What we are asking of the legislators is: 'You have got to make this board proactive.' "
Dr. Sharon Levine, president of the medical board, told lawmakers that its primary job is to protect the health and safety of the public. She defended the board's performance, saying it does investigate complaints but has been constrained by a shortage of staff.
Levine said recent trends in medicine may have gone too far in urging doctors to take patients' complaints about pain seriously.
"Physicians may believe that if a patient has real pain, you don't have to worry about addiction," Levine said. "The pendulum swung where physicians were fearful of criticism for the under-treatment of pain."
DeHaven's son managed to kick his addiction after his father agreed to go undercover to identify drug dealers in exchange for his son's release from prison on a drug charge.
Now, his 27-year-old son – weighing just 127 pounds at 6 foot, 2 inches at the height of his addiction – has regained his weight and health and has been clean for 2 1/2 years, said DeHaven. "It's just a blessing to have him," he said.
To see a gallery of photographs from the hearing on doctors who overprescribe addictive drugs, go to sacbee.com/multimedia
Call The Bee's Cynthia H. Craft, (916) 321-1270. Follow her on Twitter @cynthiahcraft.