Attacking the Ballot
Fed up with politicians and lobbyists, a Danville dad turns to voters to tighten prescription drug laws.
Bob Pack doesn’t want anyone else to go through the sorrow and anguish his family has endured.
In 2003, a woman who was driving while high on Vicodin and vodka hit and killed Pack’s two young children, Troy and Alana. Since the tragedy, he has campaigned tirelessly for stricter prescription drug laws. But he says his efforts have been shot down by lobbyists for the pharmaceutical industry who fear that a crackdown on people receiving prescriptions from multiple doctors will cut into their profits.
So on November 4, Pack is asking California’s voters to take the law into their own hands. For the past 18 months, he has led an effort to collect more than 800,000 signatures to put the Troy and Alana Pack Patient Safety Act of 2014 on the ballot.
If passed, Proposition 46 will address a range of medical negligence issues, including a mandatory requirement for doctors and pharmacists in California to check a statewide prescription drug database before filling a new narcotic drug prescription.
Pack explained more about the initiative and why he’s desperately calling on voters for support.
Q: Why did you launch this initiative?
A: After the death of Troy and Alana, I started to learn about what happened, and how the woman who ran them over obtained all the prescription narcotics. It turned out that there were six doctors who all worked for one HMO in Walnut Creek, who prescribed thousands of narcotics for her. They had never verified an injury on her, and they never shared a medical file.
Q: You helped set up a database for prescription drugs. Why hasn’t it been used?
A: It launched in 2009—right as the state was facing severe budget cuts. We had to work hard to get funding. Meanwhile, the California Medical Association was lobbying against the database. They fought hard against the initiative, just as they did when I tried getting a Senate bill passed for mandatory database checking: It got killed.
During this time, the abuse of prescription narcotics was getting worse and worse. Last year, there were about 4,000 deaths from prescription narcotics abuse in California, which exceeded deaths from traffic accidents.
Q: You’ve had a big fight on your hands.
A: I’ve tried working with the Medical Association to see if we could meet them halfway. They wouldn’t even come to the table. When you are going up against them, you are going against Big Pharma and Big Insurance, and they are all aligned because of money and control.
But I feel strongly about these issues because I know the impact it can have, as a victim myself. I have spent so much time, more than eight years—like a full-time job. I have tried to take a commonsense approach to it. I’ve tried to approach it with reasonable solutions to reducing death and drug abuse, and have found resistance from these special interests.
My only recourse is to take it to the people. This isn’t a first course of action: It is more of a last resort.
Q: Why doesn’t the Medical Association want to use the database?
A: The ironic thing about the database is that the majority of doctors want to use it. It’s the bureaucrats and lobbyists running the California Medical Association who don’t want it.
They don’t really have a good answer for their opposition to the bill. They’re either vague (“It’s a flawed bill”), or they try to use scare tactics (“You’ll lose your privacy”).
Q: Is that true? Would patients lose their privacy?
A: The state Attorney General’s office and the Department of Consumer Affairs have been very diligent in maintaining the federal HIPAA privacy requirements in relation to the prescription drug database. Those requirements have been maintained without ever being breached since the database started.
Q: What are the specific advantages of using the database?
A: What we have found from three other states [New York, Tennessee, and Kentucky] that use similar databases is that they have reduced total prescriptions by 10 percent, and doctor shopping by 50 percent.
This is saving the state of New York more than $400 million in police resources and emergency responses. Here in California, we have a $5 billion impact from prescription narcotics every year. We estimate that passing this bill would save us about $400 million per year, in addition to saving lives and reducing narcotics in our schools.
Q: Also included in Prop. 46 is a requirement for random drug testing of California doctors. Why is this necessary?
A: Over the years, drug testing has been a proven formula for other industries with high-risk professions: pilots, police, and the military. These industries do it because they want to show the public that these high-risk professions police themselves well on drug and alcohol issues.
All of these high-level advocacy people say that doctors should be included in testing. Doctors have a higher abuse rate of prescription drugs than average consumers: Doctors have a high stress–level job and easy access to narcotics.
Say you have 150,000 doctors in California. Even if it’s 10 percent, that makes 15,000 doctors where there’s a problem. [Mandatory] drug testing can have a great deterrent effect on that problem.
Q: The Yes on Prop. 46 website makes an alarming claim: that medical negligence is the third leading cause of death in the United States, behind only cancer and heart disease.
A: Medical negligence leads to more than 400,000 deaths in the United States each year. It is an alarming number. It makes you ask, What can we possibly do? How do you improve patient safety?
This bill is not going to entirely solve the problem, but it is going to help.
Q: The bill would also raise the cap on the amount of money a victim of medical malpractice can sue for. Why should the cap be raised?
A: This is for noneconomic damages related to pain and suffering or death. If you lose a child to medical negligence, there is a cap set at $250,000 in reimbursement. That cap had been set in 1975, with no inflation adjusters. [These days], it is going to cost you $200,000 in legal fees just to get to a trial.
When I found out about the circumstances that led to the woman who ran over Troy and Alana being prescribed narcotics willy-nilly, I wanted to make sure that the doctors were held accountable. No attorney would take my case.
Q: How do you think voters will react to a bill that will make it more lucrative to sue doctors and hospitals?
A: Well, certainly one of the arguments from the opposition is that this is a money grab for lawyers. That is why the new cap would be set at $1.1 million for the victim: All we are doing is adjusting the cap for 38 years of lost inflation.
The bill also sets the lawyer fees on a sliding scale, which starts at 33 percent and goes down to 15 percent as the award goes up, so the vast majority of the award goes to the patient or family. For any award greater than $600,000, the lawyer is capped at 15 percent: Lawyers getting 15 percent is not a money grab.
Q: How likely is Prop. 46 to pass?
A: We have done two extensive polls, and the first showed it passing with 73 percent of the vote, and the second had it passing at 71 percent. I believe the voters want this to pass. The elements in the ballot measure strike a strong chord with the public and address the need to improve patient safety.
I also think the public has been disappointed by the reluctance of the legislature to take on these issues. But the opposition has $55 million to make its case, so it all comes down to turnout in November.
Q: Finally, some people have encouraged you to run for office. Do you have plans to get into politics full-time?
A: I have been approached, but I don’t have any ambitions to run for public office right now. I have been able to do the things I have wanted to do to make changes on public safety so far.
There are certain aspects to working in politics that are not to my nature and not to my liking. These have to do with party politics and special interests.
That’s not to say I wouldn’t ever consider running for office in the future to continue my path to try and help the public.