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Viewpoints: Prop. 46 will protect patients

When California adopted the initiative process in 1911 during an era of railroad robber barons, voters gained a vital tool to enact critically needed policy changes when recalcitrant legislators and powerful special interests stand in the way.

Proposition 46 is a compelling case in point. This measure, which I helped put on the Nov. 4 ballot, seeks to overcome health industry intransigence in the face of a national patient safety problem. The need for reform is beyond dispute. Each year, 440,000 patients die from preventable medical errors, the third-leading cause of death.

Meanwhile, more than 500,000 health care workers are battling drug or alcohol problems, and prescription narcotics abuse is the nation’s fastest growing drug epidemic.

The medical industry has failed to respond. Lawmakers, under the influence of industry lobbyists and campaign cash, have done nothing. The media is largely mute, despite the massive death toll. Countless more victims are left maimed.

They’re people like Tina Minasian of Roseville. Minasian underwent abdominal surgery and suffered for months as an infection caused by the procedure festered. She was left mutilated. Imagine her shock upon discovering the surgeon was an alcoholic participating in a medical board diversion program. His “monitor” was his own office manager, who dutifully ignored the physician’s continued drinking. The doctor’s alcohol problem finally cost him his license in 2012, a decade after Minasian’s botched surgery.

Her experience was no anomaly. That’s why we need Proposition 46.

The ballot measure would require drug and alcohol testing of doctors, just as we require of pilots and police. Testing is endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general and Johns Hopkins University patient safety experts.

Addiction doesn’t make doctors bad people. But it does make them a risk to our safety. Whether in an operating room or at hospital bedside, physicians hold a life in their hands. Is it too much to ask that they practice sober?

To fight prescription drug abuse, Prop. 46 mandates that doctors check California’s database before authorizing powerful narcotics for the first time to patients; now fewer than one in 10 physicians bother.

It also adjusts the state’s cap on malpractice damages to account for nearly four decades of inflation. This cap on pain and suffering, frozen since 1975, discriminates against children, the elderly and others lacking lost wages – a key metric for damages in malpractice cases. They’re often without legal recourse, while negligent physicians are left unaccountable and undeterred.

Opponents of reform, including the wildly profitable malpractice insurance industry, stiff-arm compromise. Earlier this year, a partial legislative solution was at hand – a modest adjustment in the malpractice cap. But at the 11th hour, the medical lobby walked away.

My own push to mandate prescription database use was dashed in the Legislature by doctors’ opposition. Why would doctors balk at using a life-saving tool? Facing such roadblocks while lives were at risk, we turned to the ballot box.

As the campaign rages, I hope you’ll look beyond our foes’ advertising blitz and consider the traumas experienced by people like me. My children, Troy and Alana, were run down along a road by a doctor-shopping prescription drug addict. The physicians who recklessly prescribed her thousands of pills were never held accountable.

Since their deaths, I’ve tried to work within the system. But like most ordinary Californians, I lack the clout to overcome the medical industry Goliath.

Now, voters have a slingshot. And the truth: When it comes to protecting patients from drug-addicted or negligent doctors, playing politics and erecting roadblocks to common-sense solutions is not only unacceptable, it’s downright cruel.