Health & Medicine

California legislators fast-track bill to ensure patients get pain medications

Concerned that patients are having trouble getting critically needed medications, California Assembly members Jim Cooper and Evan Low are moving to give regulators and medical boards more time to make changes to prescription forms that were supposed to go into effect Jan. 1.

In a Jan. 14 article, The Sacramento Bee revealed that doctors statewide were having trouble getting their prescriptions filled for patients who needed pain medications, even for patients who had just had surgery. The problem was occurring, doctors said, because printing companies and doctors didn’t have the advance notice needed to make newly mandated changes to prescription pads.

“There’s often unintended consequences with legislation,” said Skyler Wonnacott, a spokesman for Cooper. “Once it’s implemented, we start to find out how it’s affecting people, and obviously this is affecting many patients, and a lot of people need their medications. I read your story, and there was a patient who wasn’t able to get his pain meds right after he’d had surgery. We want to ensure patients have access to the prescriptions they need.”

Wonnacott said the new legislation, Assembly Bill 149, will delay the Jan. 1, 2019, implementation date under Assembly Bill 1753. Approved in September 2018, that measure established a new method for validating prescription numbers and limited the number of companies that could print the forms.

Under AB 149, the new implementation date would be Jan. 1, 2020.

“That will allow the (California) Department of Justice to work with the medical boards and everyone else to ensure people have access to their prescriptions,” Wonnacott said.

Dr. Richard Buss, a Jackson physician whose patients experienced problems, said he was pleased to hear about the move to add this grace period, even though it comes late in the game.

“Most doctors by now have had to get new prescription pads,” Buss said. “We’ve been forced to go out and do that, but it will be nice to be able to go ahead and use the several hundred dollars’ worth of old prescription pads that I still have on hand. If that’s possible over the next year, that would be good.”

Buss said he would have been able to use his old pads for medication that wasn’t classified as a controlled substance, but that it would have been a bit of headache to juggle two sets of forms for a while.

AB 1753 and other legislation relating to prescription forms are part of an effort to ensure that access to controlled substances such as opioid pain relievers remains tightly controlled in California. While deaths from opioids have skyrocketed nationwide, the Golden State has among the lowest mortality rates for opioid-related overdoses.

Low, the Silicon Valley Democrat who carried AB 1753, heard complaints about patient access to medications and vowed to work with regulators and stakeholders to achieve a solution quickly. He and the California Medical Association, representing 43,000 doctors, approached Cooper, D-Elk Grove, to see whether he would be amenable to removing the language in a bill he’d already introduced and inserting the new language on the grace period for prescription forms.

This so-called gut-and-amend process is often used when lawmakers want to avoid the required waiting periods and deadlines for introducing new legislation. Wonnacott said AB 149, which should be printed online as early as Friday, is expected to get a hearing by Tuesday in the Assembly Business and Professions Committee.

Janus Norman, the California Medical Association’s chief legislative advocate, said: “We appreciate the Legislature’s expediency in working to ensure patients receive timely access to their needed medications. We applaud Assembly member Cooper for shepherding this issue through the process, and we’re confident for a speedy resolution.”

Editor’s note March 14, 2019: Since the initial publication of this story, The Bee has learned that the California Medical Board put Dr. Richard Buss on probation in 2015 as a result of an investigation into the 2007 death of a patient from polypharmacy, or taking multiple medications at the same time, according to board documents. The causes cited for the five-year probation were gross negligence, negligent acts and incompetence.

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