It's been nearly a decade since two Danville children were killed when a Mercedes driven by a woman who had been drinking and taking pain medications veered off the road and struck them.
The deaths of Troy Pack, 10, and his sister, Alana, 7, focused attention on prescription drug abuse. The driver, Jimena Barreto, had consumed about 120 Vicodin pills in about 20 days. She had obtained prescriptions for the medication from doctors.
But despite the 2003 tragedy and despite the evidence since then of increasing prescription drug addiction and abuse across the state and the nation, California has taken only tiny steps to rein in addicts and reckless doctors.
Theoretically, the state has a system for tracking prescriptions of addictive medications. But the monitoring program is running out of money and relies on out-of-date technology.
State Attorney General Kamala Harris, whose office runs the program, has money to upgrade the system but not to run it. So state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, has authored legislation to raise those ongoing funds.
The bill would increase license fees by 1.16 percent for pharmacists, doctors and other prescribers of controlled substances. The state Senate unanimously passed the legislation in May and it now awaits its first hearing in the Assembly. It deserves swift approval.
To win Senate backing, DeSaulnier had to make concessions. Doctors only agreed to back the measure after provisions were removed that would have required them to check the system before prescribing addictive drugs.
To stave off the powerful pharmaceutical industry, whose lobbyists had rounded up enough votes to kill the measure, DeSaulnier had to remove a provision taxing manufacturers of the drugs.
The funds from drugmakers were supposed to go for another key part of the program: Hiring enforcement teams to ferret out patients who illegally travel between doctors collecting prescriptions, and cracking down on doctors who carelessly hand them out.
In other words, if the Assembly passes SB 809, there should be enough funds to run the system, but doctors will only be encouraged, not required, to use it. And there will still be insufficient money for investigations of abusers.
Nevertheless, this provides an opportunity for doctors who care enough about their patients to monitor their drug usage when writing prescriptions.
The next steps should be making it mandatory for doctors to check the system and requiring the pharmaceutical industry to make a contribution for enforcement.
The drug manufacturers earn billions. They should give a little back to stem the heartbreak that their products can cause.