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Hall of Famer Speaks Out In Bee On His Family’s Tragedy And Patient Safety

6:27 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Bob PackThe war over patient safety is heating up in Sacramento. Yesterday, Pulitizer Prize winning Los Angeles Times columnist Mike Hiltzik wrote a cut-to-the-heart of it column shredding the phony arguments of those resisting the patient safety reforms Bob Pack and Consumer Watchdog have been fighting for all year.

Hiltzik said,

It’s a very rare thing for a legislator to admit that a law he sponsored hasn’t worked out as expected. It’s even rarer for him to label it “oppressive” and call for its revision…It’s time to bring this 37-year-old law into the 21st century, and fix the malpractice system so that it actually works.

In today’s Sac Bee, Consumer Watchdog’s Rage for Justice Awards Hall of Famer Bob Pack responds to the medical-insurance lobby’s oped yesterday opposing reform by talking about why his family’s tragedy spurred his activism. Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg even weighed in on the debate saying, “It’s not going to go away.”

Here’s Bob’s powerful oped:

Viewpoints: Cap on medical negligence claims is outdated and unfair to victims
July 11, 2013

When my 7-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son died suddenly on a roadside nine years ago, I was forced to confront not only the unimaginable grief of losing my young children forever, but also the reality that doctor discipline and accountability in California don’t exist.

Alana and Troy were walking on a sidewalk in Danville with my wife, Carmen, when a drugged driver fell unconscious at the wheel and swerved off the road, killing my two children and injuring Carmen. We also ended up losing our unborn twins as well.

The driver, Jimena Barreto, turned out to be a doctor-shopping drug addict who was convicted of second-degree murder and imprisoned for 30 years to life. The Kaiser doctors who prescribed her thousands of pills, however, were never held accountable for their negligence.

Barreto had no physical symptoms, but managed to stockpile narcotics without any oversight.

In the wake of my family’s tragedy, I found that Kaiser’s doctors had no idea they were all over-prescribing to the same doctor shopper. There was no computer system tracking prescriptions patients received. Since my background is in technology, I developed the electronic CURES database, a searchable system that tracks prescriptions dispensed in California.

Today, the tool is at the disposal of every doctor, law enforcement official and regulator in the state. Unfortunately, most of them don’t use it.

This is the sad story of the last 3 1/2 decades in California: physicians largely unwilling to police themselves, regulators turning a blind eye to available information about dangerous doctors, and a lack of legal deterrence to medical negligence.

The core of the failed doctor disciplinary system that killed my four children dates back to 1975. It was a punch in my gut when I learned that a California law capped the value of my children’s lives at $250,000.

Jerry Brown signed the law in his first term as governor, 37 years ago, and the amount has never been adjusted for inflation.

At the time, doctors promised that a strong new regulatory system would make up for the lost deterrence of the legal system, but patient safety scandals continue to rock California.

Kaiser still doesn’t utilize the CURES database. The physicians responsible for the death of my children were never disciplined by the California Medical Board. In fact, the current president of the medical board was the medical director at Kaiser who refused to make changes at the HMO following my family’s tragedy.

In 1975, legislators made $22,000 per year. Back then, a gallon of gasoline cost 57 cents. The value of everything has gone up since 1975, but not the $250,000 cap on the value of a child’s life.

The law is one size fits all, no matter how clear the negligence or how catastrophic the injury or loss. It sets a fixed cap on the value of a child’s life, and does the same to others whose quality of life is destroyed when their limbs, or vision, or ability to have a child are taken away by negligent doctors.

Of course, Troy and Alana were priceless. No amount of money can replace them. But when a child’s life is valued so little, patients face continued risks because the medical establishment has no incentive to change.

It’s time to adjust this 37-year-old cap so it is in line with the cost of living. Recently Barry Keene, the author of the law, came forward to say it should be indexed for inflation, and that was always the Legislature’s intent.

There is no danger malpractice insurance rates will rise. Since 1988, California’s malpractice insurance rates have been tightly regulated.

Unfortunately, the Legislature has not acted, which is why I am working with Consumer Watchdog on a ballot initiative, “The Troy and Alana Pack Patient Safety Act,” for the 2014 ballot. If California lawmakers are unwilling to prevent another family from going through the same tragedy Carmen and I faced, the voters will have their chance.

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Top Ten Dangerous Doctors Are Poster Children for Patient Safety Reform

1:49 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Top Ten Dangerous DoctorsTen doctors that the California Medical Board failed to take off the streets before repeated acts of negligence and patient endangerment harmed or killed their patients make the case for reforming California’s patient safety laws, said Consumer Watchdog today.

Consumer Watchdog released a “Top Ten Dangerous Doctors” list of physicians whose negligence injured or even killed their patients.

These ten dangerous doctors are some of the most egregious overprescribers, repeat offenders, and drug and alcohol users in California. Their stories show the urgent need for action by California lawmakers to replace a Medical Board that has allowed bad doctors to continue to practice, and to raise the outdated cap on patients’ ability to hold negligent doctors accountable in court.

Last month, Consumer Watchdog joined the coalition to announce a patient safety ballot measure that will raise the cap on damages in medical negligence lawsuits and require physicians to check a prescription drug database before prescribing narcotics. The coalition, including Bob Pack who lost his two children to a drug addict who was overprescribed narcotics, will place the measure on the ballot if the legislature fails to enact patient safety reform legislation this year.

The “Top Ten Dangerous Doctors” who make the case for patient safety reform include:

  • Dr. Van Vu and Dr. Carlos Estiandan, identified as over-prescribers in a Los Angeles Times investigation and who together had at least 25 patients die from prescription drug overdoses. Neither has lost their medical license.
  • Dr. Aria Omar Sabit and Dr. Israel Chambi, neurosurgeons who together have had at least 55 medical malpractice lawsuits filed against them. Chambi continues to practice despite 10 malpractice settlements and having lost his post at two medical centers. No action was taken against Sabit after he moved his practice out of state.
  • Dr. Craig Alan Bittner, Dr. Efrain Gonzalez (and his wife Dr. Yessennia Candelaria), all physicians who practiced cosmetic surgery with no formal training. The three had their licenses suspended or revoked by the Medical Board only after arrests had taken place and at least 21 of their patients were severely disfigured.
  • Dr. Brian West and Dr. Daryl Westerback were each arrested twice for driving under the influence of alcohol or prescription drugs. West did not lose his license until nine years after the first complaint against him and being arrested for drunk driving on the way to treat a patient. Westerback, who is accused of treating patients while under the influence, lost his license to prescribe but continues to practice.
  • Dr. Andrew Rutland had his license revoked a decade ago after the deaths of two infants and 15 malpractice claims, but was reinstated five years later. Rutland lost his license again in 2011 after being found responsible for another patient death.
  • Dr. Shane Sheibani, a plastic surgeon who left dozens of patients disfigured, had his license suspended in 2009 but continued to practice and harm patients for three more years before his license was finally revoked.

Reforms being considered in “The Troy and Alana Pack Patient Safety Act” include:

  • Raising or repealing the cap on damages in medical malpractice cases.
  • Mandatory drug and alcohol testing for doctors.
  • Full funding of the CURES database and mandatory use by physicians before prescribing narcotics.
  • Medical Board reform including a public member majority, increased transparency of complaints and transferring investigative powers to the Department of Justice.

Top Ten Dangerous Doctors

Top 10 Dangerous Doctors

Dr. Aria Omar Sabit

Neurosurgeon. Twenty lawsuits were filed against Sabit stemming from the 17 months he practiced in Ventura County, alleging misplaced screws in spinal fusions, post-op infections and botched brain surgery. Victims say Sabit made so many mistakes in such a short period of time that Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura and Ventura County Neurosurgical Associates Medical Group should have intervened long before the medical group fired him in December 2010. Attorneys for those patients have dubbed Sabit “The Butcher.” Community Memorial officials said they asked the Medical Board of California to investigate. In February 2012 Medical Board representatives would not comment on the possibility of an investigation involving Sabit, but told a reporter no action had been taken against him since he was licensed to practice in California in 2009. Sabit is now practicing in Michigan.

Dr. Van Vu

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Give my 6-week-old daughter’s death meaning

7:30 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

38 Is Too Late BillboardMy baby Mia died in a hospital at just 6 weeks of age from whooping cough in the middle of a whooping cough epidemic because doctors didn’t give her a simple test.

A 38-year-old law says her life is only worth $250,000 – that is the value of a child in California when they’re harmed by the health care industry. It’s wrong, and it’s the reason medical negligence is so common today – there’s little price to pay when something goes wrong.

We should not have to put up a billboard in Sacramento to get the Legislature’s attention to change the law, but we did. It’s on Highway I-80 so state legislators will consider updating the antiquated law that for the past 38 years has put a discriminatory limit on the value of a precious life like Mia’s.

Will you help me keep this billboard up with a donation today?

You can read more about Mia and watch a video at, where you can join our movement to update patient safety laws in California and better protect patients.

Please take a minute to donate and learn more.
Posted by Alejandra Gonzalez-Chavez, Special to Consumer Watchdog. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter.

Documents Reveal Toxics Regulator Knew of Exide Safety Risks for Years

4:48 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

DTSC Fail New documents reveal that, contrary to its public statements, the state’s top toxics regulator knew about lead and arsenic emissions at Exide Technologies for years but looked the other way, Consumer Watchdog said today.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) suspended Exide’s operations on April 24 and is now negotiating with the company on how to resume operations in heavily industrial Vernon where roughly one hundred residents live, but some 45,000 factory workers go every day.

“This serial toxic polluter should be shut down permanently and required to pay to clean up their mess,” said consumer advocate Liza Tucker. “The fact that the DTSC did not protect the public when people were in harm’s way is inexcusable.”

On the day of Exide’s suspension, DTSC Director Debbie Raphael told reporters that there was no reason to believe that hazardous releases were going into the LA River or drinking water. She said the DTSC suspended Exide’s operations after recently learning of dangerous arsenic emissions to the air and of leaky pipes releasing hazardous waste into the soil.

In fact, the DTSC knew of the emissions for years. Exide Technologies confirms this in a filing before the department contesting the shutdown and calling for a court hearing. “The DTSC has known of the issues raised in the Order and Accusation for an extended period of time, and has consented to Exide’s continued operation,” wrote the Los Angeles firm of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton.

And the department could not draw conclusions about the drinking water as DTSC regulators say that Exide was never compelled to dig monitoring wells deeply enough to ascertain if contamination had reached water as deep as public drinking wells.

Documents obtained by Consumer Watchdog show that the DTSC knew that the lead battery recycler’s operations endangered the public, that lead and arsenic emissions were going into the air and accumulating at hazardous levels on the ground, and were washing away into the surrounding watershed. Lead exposure can cause learning disabilities and high blood pressure. Arsenic exposure can cause heart disease, strokes, and cancer.

A study prepared by e2 Environmental for Exide at the request of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and shared with DTSC officials in 2007 said modeling of the dispersion of heavy metals from the site “suggest that in the last three years, Exide has contributed through deposition approximately 424 lbs. of lead in both 2004 and 2005 and 712 lbs of lead in 2006 to the watershed.”

A letter sent earlier this month to DTSC Director Debbie Raphael from DTSC Senior Hazardous Substances Engineering Geologist Philip Chandler makes clear that top staff resisted internal recommendations to do what was necessary to ensure long-term safety at the plant. The letter says:

  • DTSC “has conveniently ignored for years” lead, arsenic and other heavy metal emissions that were permitted by air regulators but accumulated to hazardous waste levels on the ground.
  • Exide’s own arsenic emissions source tests in 2010 and 2012, showed a significant spike in emissions over tests in 2006 and 2008. “DTSC had the ability to evaluate the change in emissions risk years before it issued this order” suspending the plant’s operations.
  • Between 1999-2000, DTSC found lead at levels of 40 percent in the sediment at the bottom of the storm water retention pond and required Exide to clean it up. DTSC “was clearly aware” that the storm water drain lines were bringing lead particulates to the pond and that the lines were reportedly “perforated” so that they could leak into the soil on purpose.

The Exide facility emitted hazardous waste for years under a permit from the South Coast Air Quality Management District. This waste had a history of depositing and accumulating on the ground and roofs around the site.

In 2002, the DTSC issued an order requiring Exide to take measures to characterize the contamination and clean up 76 different waste units. In 2003, the DTSC fined Exide $40,000 for improper storage of used lead-acid batteries, but delayed payment because of Exide’s Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing.

The DTSC took emergency measures in 2004 and again in 2008 to force Exide to clean up a lead-contaminated drainage channel, and public areas like sidewalks, streets, and neighboring roofs. In between, in 2006, the DTSC fined the company $25,000 in 2006 for failing to minimize the possibility of hazardous releases. “DTSC and air regulators failed miserably in coordinating to prevent continuous accumulation of hazardous waste on the ground,” Tucker said.

Though DTSC regulators in Southern California pushed the company to investigate and clean up, higher ups deferred taking corrective action in favor of issuing a final permit to the company that never materialized. “While lead and arsenic were piling up, soaking into the groundwater, and also flowing into the Los Angeles River, Exide and its negligent operations were falling through the regulatory cracks,” said Tucker. “And top DTSC managers refused to force the company, which is a polluter on a national scale, into compliance.”

For more on the DTSC and toxic pollution around the state, see:

My Son’s Life Is Worth More

2:16 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Press ConferenceSince 1975 the value of everything has gone up, except the value of my son’s life under California law.

Last week my son, Steven and I went to Sacramento to say “38 years is too late.” We announced a ballot initiative to create stronger patient safety laws and adjust this nearly 38 year-old law. You can join our efforts by reading our story and others of patients like us at the new site “38 is too late” and liking our Facebook page.

In California, no matter how badly a child is hurt, or even if they are killed by gross medical negligence, the value of their life is only $250,000, an amount set by the Legislature nearly 38 years ago. That’s just not right.

When my son Steven was a toddler, he fell on a stick while hiking near his grandmother’s cabin in the mountains. The hospital pumped Steven up with steroids and sent him away with a growing brain abscess, although we had asked for a CAT scan because we knew Steven was not well. The next day, he came back to the hospital comatose. Medical experts later concluded that had he received the $800 CAT scan, he almost certainly would have been successfully treated.

Today, at 23 years old, Steven is blind and has cerebral palsy. Even though a jury heard our case and said Steven should receive $7.1 million for the horrible losses he will suffer for the rest of his life, the judge reduced the amount to $250,000 under California’s one size fits all cap.

Kathy and Steven OlsenThe jurors only found out that their verdict had been reduced by reading about it in the newspaper. They expressed their outrage, but the Legislature has not heard them, or patients like me. The cap has not been adjusted for almost 38 years, since Governor Brown signed the law in his first administration.

The ballot measure Consumer Watchdog and The Troy and Alana Pack Foundation announced in the Capitol last week would lift the cap so juries can make their own decisions on a case by case basis. The measure also reforms the state’s Medical Board and creates greater disclosure about prescription drug overdoses and the role of dangerous doctors.

The “38 Is Too Late” group will go to the ballot this fall if the Legislature doesn’t act. I hope you will join me in sending a message to lawmakers that they should act and then join our community online on our website and on Facebook.

You can read more about this historic moment from an article in last week’s Los Angeles Times.
Posted by Kathy Olsen, Board Member of Consumer Watchdog. Follow Consumer Watchdog online on Facebook and Twitter.

Lessons (Not) Learned From the Chevron Fire

2:55 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Chevron Refinery Fire

On Friday, federal accident investigators told California legislators that the state’s patchwork of oil industry regulations needs a serious overhaul. The Chevron fire that produced a toxic cloud and sent 15,000 people to the hospital could have been prevented, but the system was reactive and not designed to foresee and forestall problems, said the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Duh. The board didn’t need 18 months to come to that conclusion. But Don Holstrom, lead investigator for the board, did put his finger on one problem: the need to bump up the number, skills, and authority of refinery inspectors.

Something smells when an agency purposefully cripples its own enforcement abilities. One good example is the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC). The DTSC exists to protect communities like Richmond from toxic harm. And for years, it’s done a very poor job of it.

The DTSC has broad statutory authority to sanction these giant chemical plants for toxic releases like the one that Chevron caused in its fire, but it consistently refuses. Better yet, the DTSC should play a pro-active role in preventing harm as the department is supposed to do. So, you’d think the DTSC would view having refinery inspectors on staff as a high priority—inspectors that could be given broad latitude to inspect the guts of a refinery where hazardous substances slosh around and not just its excrement. Evidently, the DTSC thinks the fewer refinery inspectors the better.

The DTSC has only two refinery inspectors for the entire state and one of them is green and in training. The DTSC used to have more. But when other inspectors from its refinery unit retired or left, the DTSC didn’t bother to replace them. Nine vacancies in the unit handing refinery inspections were the result. Two scientist positions were approved for the refinery inspection unit and then inexplicably redirected to other positions and regions.

Refinery inspections are the most complex kind and the scientists that do them sometimes take a week to complete them. These scientists know the ins and outs of dealing with refineries. The DTSC maintains that any scientist can conduct a refinery inspection, but that just isn’t true. “Anyone who says that all DTSC scientists can conduct them and are trained to do them is either lying or out of their mind,” says one DTSC career investigator.

Under the direction of Chief Deputy Director Odette Madriago positions can be cut or simply re-directed, the investigator said. On top of that, “Odette has put in place the strictest travel requirements of all CAL EPA.” The inspectors and investigators that have to travel have to fill out a lengthy document and have to get approval from their supervisor before they can go do an inspection or investigation. “These travel restrictions have allowed polluters to go unchecked and unregulated,” the investigator said.

One explanation is budgets are tight. Another is that it isn’t in the interest of someone like Ms. Madriago to regulate an industry in which she invests. She’s invested up to $100,000 in Chevron and in BP Amoco. Why regulate these refineries and sanction them millions of dollars that could affect their stock price?

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Patients Can Change Patient Safety

1:11 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Jamie Court

There aren’t too many great days for patient safety in state capitols, where the medical establishment tends to rule the roost through the power of its political giving and tentacles. But Monday was a great day for patient safety in Sacramento, when powerful testimony reminded legislators of the human cost of inaction.

The families of victims of overprescribing spent an hour and half in the Senate and Assembly Business and Professions Committees and presented some of the most compelling testimony ever heard there. Their stories and faces were felt around the Capitol Tuesday from huge photographs on the front pages of the Sacramento Bee and Los Angeles Times to TV news stories echoing legislative sympathy for reform.

Smick FamilyThe medical establishment is now on the defensive. A Medical Board overhaul is in the air. Debate is turning to the government not protecting patients enough.

Will the clarity these courageous families brought to the failure of California’s laws to protect patient safety grow or wither in the coming days? It’s up to us, but I think it will grow.

Carmen Balber and I asked in an oped in Monday morning’s San Francisco Chronicle whether it wasn’t time to pull the plug on the current physician-run medical board. We wrote:

For decades, the medical board has failed to identify dangerous practice patterns, such as over-prescribing, which should trigger investigation. In fact, the board only acts on complaints by consumers, and then rarely. Once an investigation is begun, it takes years to resolve, too long for patients who may be at imminent risk of harm.

When prosecuted, an enforcement case can stagnate in five layers of review. Sadly, little other deterrence exists to medical negligence.

Those listening to the tragic stories in Sacramento this week could not help but understand the human consequences of such inaction. Sons, daughters, brothers, uncles lost. Preventable deaths.

All because the California Medical Association and the state medical board it controls won’t agree to a $9 increase in physician license fees — the cost of two cappuccinos — for workers to find overprescribing doctors in a state database. And due to the grip of this medical establishment over our regulators and the legal system — where families who lose nonwage earners to dirty doctors cannot get legal representation due to a 38 year-old cap on their recovery.

We called for these changes in Monday’s Chronicle.

A true overhaul of physician discipline would move complaint investigators into the attorney general’s office to work hand in hand with prosecutors and would create a public-member majority on the medical board.

Real reform should also include mandatory random drug testing of high-risk surgeons and physicians – as is mandated now for bus drivers, college athletes and pilots. Finally, the state’s 38-year-old limits on the rights of injured patients need to be revisited, too. It’s time for the public to take the power back for itself.

It’s Wednesday morning. Eyes are wide open. And we are a lot closer to patients taking power back than we were before.

Enough is Enough Family Rally
Posted by Jamie Court, author of The Progressive’s Guide to Raising Hell and President of Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Was State Senator Rubio (CA) Auditioning For Job at Chevron?

2:53 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog


The power of the petroleum industry in California may be unparalleled in the states. Its lobbying machine is stupendously successful. For instance, California remains the only significant oil producer that does not tax oil extracted in the state. It has very weak–perhaps the weakest–regulation of oil and gas extraction, particularly hydraulic fracturing of deep deposits, known as “fracking.” State environmental laws are under constant attack.

State Sen. Michael Rubio, a Central Valley Democrat elected to his seat in 2010, was in an ideal spot to show whose side he was on in these fights.

Rubio, who resigned from the Senate Feb. 22 to work for Chevron as its chief California lobbyist, was chair of the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, which oversees oil industry environmental issues. In 2011-12, he was a key Democrat on the Senate’s energy committee.

His most recent official action was an inaction: He was scheduled to co-chair his committee’s hearing on fracking with Sen. Fran Pavley. The hearing took place, airing widespread frustration with the weakness and loopholes of current and proposed state regulation of fracking. Rubio, however, was a no-show.

It’s obvious now that on Feb. 12 he was getting ready to jump ship to Chevron, and likely in no mood to hear citizen fears about water pollution, spoiled land and even fracking-induced earthquakes. But Rubio did, in his short tenure, leave a record that Chevron was surely tracking with admiration.

In hindisght, his biggest moment in the spotlight would have been his months-long campaigning on behalf of a corporate effort to weaken the California Environmental Quality Act. The changes would have particularly benefited the oil, energy and property development industries. The proposals didn’t become law, but they’re not dead yet. Rubio will just be working them from the other side of the fence.

In May 2012, Rubio also cast the deciding “no” vote against a bill (SB 1054) by Sen. Pavley that would have merely required oil companies to notify residents and businesses nearby in advance of fracking activities. The bill, vociferously opposed by the Western States Petroleum Assn. and other oil lobbyists, failed. Industry opponents of the bill recognized Rubio for his role in leading the opposition that killed a bill with wide public support.

Rubio also supported, and may have encouraged, the governor’s firing of two state energy regulators in 2011 after oil lobby complaints about their tightening of oversight.

(Oil and energy weren’t the only supporters he was courting. Rubio also championed the profits of Blue Cross over the pocketbooks of customers. He withheld his vote in 2011 from a measure that would have allowed the state insurance commissioner to reject health insurance rate increases that could not be justified. In the state Legislature, an abstention from voting is effectively a “no” vote, but with no accountability. It’s the coward’s way out. )

Judy Dugan

Chevron certainly knows what it’s getting with this new top lobbyist.

Rubio stated that he was leaving his elected post two years early to spend more time with his family, including a disabled child. No matter how much that weighed in his decision, the fact remains that his status as a state senator (however briefly) greatly inreased his value to Chevron. His pay will grow by multples. Because there is no law against such a quick trip through the revolving door–from overseeing an industry to lobbying for it–Rubio could be schmoozing his fellow legislators right now, and spreading money to their campaigns. His constituents, meanwhile, are stuck with no representation until a special election that’s perhaps months away.

Posted by Judy Dugan, former research director for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.

Political Response Required To Respond To CA Physician Drug Abuse Scandal

5:53 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

 photo pills-money_zps8ec4132b.jpg

Leading consumer advocates today called upon the legislature to hold hearings and investigate strong new laws in response to recent Los Angeles Times reports on widespread drug overdoses due to physician overprescribing and the recent case of a convicted methamphetamine-using drug-dealing doctor who will be treating patients again within a year.
Consumer Watchdog asked the Governor and legislative leaders in a letter to consider random drug testing of physicians. The advocates, who have already qualified one initiative measure for the next ballot to regulate health insurance rates, said that voters would not tolerate legislative inaction.

Click here to read the full letter.

The recent Los Angeles Times series, which uncovered 71 physicians whose prescriptions have led to three or more deaths, and the decision Friday by the state medical board to allow Dr. Nathan Kuemmerle to treat patients again after pleading guilty to felony drug dealing, prompted Consumer Watchdog to call for hearings and legislative action.

“The recent investigation and past decades of experience show that patients are not safe from drug using and drug dealing doctors,” wrote Consumer Watchdog’s Jamie Court and Carmen Balber. “One in ten physicians develop problems with drugs or alcohol over the course of their careers, yet continue to practice medicine. These physicians hold the lives of patients in their hands every day.”

“Pilots must undergo mandatory random drug testing because they hold the lives of so many passengers in their hands. Physicians who operate on patients and are in a position to overprescribe or use narcotics themselves should undergo similar mandatory random drug tests,” wrote the advocates. “Patients should not have to fear being treated or operated on by addicted physicians. Unfortunately, there is little deterrence to such malfeasance, as evidenced by the medical board’s restoration of Nathan Kuemmerle’s medical license.”

The letter also urged the Governor and lawmakers to consider moving authority for oversight and prosecution of over-prescribing to the pharmacy board, as is already the case in many states, to data mine information in the state’s prescription drug database to identify problematic prescribing patterns, and to strengthen the doctor disciplinary system and preventive measures to protect patients before they are harmed.

“Prescription drug abuse by physicians is something the public will not tolerate without a remedy that’s reasonable and effective. Though any action to detect and discipline dangerous doctors will undoubtedly bring protestations from the medical establishment, the small minority of physicians that overprescribe and use drugs need to be dealt with quickly and effectively to ensure the safety of California patients. Now is the time to act,” wrote the advocates. “An overhaul of the Medical Board is four decades overdue and necessary to protect patients.”

Break Out the Champagne at Chevron!

5:13 pm in Uncategorized by Consumer Watchdog

Chevron Refinery Fire

The news reports were on the gee-whiz side this week as state job safety regulators announced nearly $1 million in fines–the largest ever!– against Chevron for its refinery blaze last August. But “largest ever” only means that the levy hit the state’s $1 million cap on such fines. For Chevron, whose yearly profits are measured in the tens of billions (second only to Exxon), $1 million is pocket lint. As with so much of California’s regulation of mega-businesses, such fines are baked into the cost of doing business. They have zero deterrent effect.

The Cal-OSHA fines were for Chevron’s carelessness and lax oversight at its Richmond. CA refinery–leading to a a burst pipe, a huge fire and a toxic smoke cloud that sickened thousands of residents in and around the Richmond, CA, refinery last August. Chevron also dithered and delayed a shutdown for more than two hours after finding the leak, guaranteeing a conflagration.

The blaze starkly illustrated how the energy industry and other polluters evade regulation and play off one regulator against another. The regulators sit in their little silos of fractured authority, disclaiming responsibility for this disaster or that disaster.

Chevron, as the fine was issued, also listed how it would make the aged Richmond refinery safer in the future. The list is a joke–it promises not one cent in capital spending to upgrade and make safer the parts of the plant that didn’t burn down. All of the promises amount to “we’ll keep a closer eye on things.” Keep in mind as you read that Chevron’s inspections and safety training, before the August fire, were considered state of the art in the industry.

Chevron said it was:

  • Enhancing inspections of piping components potentially susceptible to sulfidation corrosion since carbon steel components with low-silicon content can corrode at an accelerated rate. This inspection program is being applied throughout our refinery system worldwide.
  • Strengthening reliability programs for piping and equipment, and enhancing competency requirements for leaders, inspectors and engineers.
  • Strengthening leak response protocols and reinforcing the authority that everyone has to shut down equipment.
  • Creating more management oversight and accountability for process safety and re-emphasizing focus on process safety.

Judy DuganThat all sounds like more of the same, vulnerable to the same human error, reluctance to shut down and cost-cutting that led to the August disaster.The badly corroded pipe that burst, for instance, was skipped in a Nov. 2011 inspection of the unit destroyed by the fire. The deliberate omission was in violation of Chevron’s own safety policies.

Chevron will obviously have to replace the pipes (and everything else) in the processing unit that failed. But even that is in question–the new pipes that Chevron insists it will usewill use are the same as the piping that corroded at a BP refinery in Washington State, leading to a similar huge blaze that shut down the refinery. Richmond’s City Council, which has final say over how Chevron does its repairs, is largely staying out of the dispute between Chevron and the U.S. Chemical Safety Board over the pipe replacements.

Could it be because Chevron spent $1.2 millon on the city’s municipal municipal election last November, putting two of the three candidates it backed onto the council and fighting off progressive candidates? The company is also pouring millions into pet projects for city leaders.

There are endless ways that a company the size of Chevron can spend relative pennies in order to keep all of its billions in profits. Fines make more economic sense than upgrades. Building parks and meddling in local elections is cheaper than protecting the overall health and safety of local citizens. Spending more millions on state officials and elections is also cheaper than suffering coordinated official scrutiny.

California’s governor and Legislature could easily improve both safety and consumer protection with some reasonable changes:

  • Put oversight and regulation of oil refineries under a single independent body, funded through a tax on oil extraction.
  • Give the regulator the power and funding to inspect refineries regularly and follow up frequently to ensure that violations are fixed.
  • Require refineries to stagger routine maintenance shutdowns in order to prevent spikes in gasoline prices, and oversee routine shutdowns to ensure that they are not dragged out for financial reasons.
  • Require that refiners keep about three weeks’ worth of gasoline in stock to ease price spikes after events like the Richmond fire. This could include stronger oversight of refiners’ exports outside the U.S.

Sounds pretty simple. But Chevron, Exxon and friends see such regulation as interfering in their freedom to profit. Gov. Jerry Brown could lead the reforms above and probably win with major public backing. It’s all a matter of whether anyone, even Brown, will stand up to the oil industry. Early on, he didn’t show much backbone. But with the economy recovering slowly and the state’s debt looking more manageable, the still-popular Brown could successfully lead the charge to make refiners operate safely and in the public interest.
Posted by Judy Dugan, research director emeritus for Consumer Watchdog, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to providing an effective voice for taxpayers and consumers in an era when special interests dominate public discourse, government and politics. Visit us on Facebook and Twitter.