Death Certificate Project

In California, nine doctors have been charged with overprescribing opioids along with other violations after a years-long investigation into their prescribing habits by a controversial state project. Dubbed the “Death Certificate Project,” the state scans death certificates to find people whose death was caused by prescription drugs such as opioids or benzos. The state then finds out what doctors prescribed a controlled substance to that patient within three years of death. (The doctors may not have been the current provider of prescriptions at the time of death, however.)

After implementing the highly controversial “Death Certificate Project,” California officials have charged nine doctors with overprescribing opioids. The state’s prescription drug database, CURES (California Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System), flagged the doctors for investigation alongside hundreds of their peers who were presumably cleared from trouble. In the complaints, the Project’s complaints cite “gross negligence,” “furnishing dangerous drugs without examination,” “unprofessional conduct,” and “inadequate record keeping.” Several of the doctors under investigation didn’t use the state’s prescription database, CURES.

While these nine doctors are being charged, hundreds more remain under investigation. In late 2015, letters began to go out to hundreds of doctors telling them that they were under investigation. These physicians, many who helped manage chronic pain, were often baffled at the inquiry. Did somebody complain about them? Were they under investigation by licensing boards, too? It turns out that the Death Certificate Project’s staffers flagged the doctors.

When the program began in late 2015, the staff of the project started reviewing 2,694 certificates of death filed in 2012 and 2013. Through that review, they also found 2,256 matches in the state’s prescription drug database, CURES (California Controlled Substance Utilization Review and Evaluation System).

CURES keeps track of who uses what drugs, and what doctors prescribed those drugs. It can easily flag a person who has duplicate prescriptions and have those prescriptions rejected.