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GAO Finds Major Overuse of Antipsychotic Drugs by the Elderly

In late 2014 we blogged about the accusations levied against Dr. Michael J. Reinstein about his improper use of antipsychotic drugs prescribed to patients in abundance, as well as taking kickbacks from the drug maker to prescribe it, and making 140,000 or more false billing claims submitted to Medicare and Medicaid for those treatments. This activity landed him in both civil and criminal hot water, and in more recent news he pled guilty to criminal charges as well as settled civil claims with the Illinois and federal governments.

The companies accused of providing those kickbacks and receiving Medicare and Medicaid dollars from the business Reinstein generated by prescribing their antipsychotic drugs. Reinstein exemplifies a holdover of a slowly diminishing practice of using antipsychotic medications, which now is viewed more as the easy way out and a method of chemical restraint when there are other methods that could more humanely calm and care for a patient, particularly dementia and Alzheimer’s patients who have historically been the recipients of antipsychotic medications. Nursing homes historically used these especially when they kept low staffing levels and did not have the manpower to aid patients. Yet antipsychotic drugs can create a cycle of drug dependency, and can even lead to death.

Changing Tides?

While the movement to eliminate the use of antipsychotic medications has gained steam in recent years, the federal government reports that elderly Americans have been overusing psychiatric drugs such as clozapine (Dr. Reinstein’s apparent drug of choice), Abilify, and others. Such drugs are meant to calm down and sedate patients that are prone to violence or outbursts, which those suffering from dementia or psychosis may be particularly prone to exhibiting. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report stating that elderly adults who live outside of nursing homes and long-term care facilities overuse antipsychotic drugs which are prescribed to them by doctors, though residents in nursing homes also fell into such dependency and overuse, and efforts to curb over-prescription and overuse must continue there as well.

Notably, according to the report, about 86% of Medicare enrollees who suffer from dementia and live outside of nursing homes are prescribed antipsychotic medications, which is a staggering statistic. It is even more remarkable when considering that only approximately 6% of total Medicare enrollees living outside of nursing homes suffer from dementia. Thus the choice of treatment has predominantly been geared toward chemical intervention. For those in nursing homes, of the elderly dementia patients living in nursing homes for over 100 days in the year 2012, approximately a third of those patients were prescribed antipsychotic drugs (and 14% of those outside of nursing homes during 2012).

Part of the problem, according to the GAO report, is the lack of oversight by the government. Medicare and Medicaid specifically take responsibility for such oversight on behalf of the federal government, and states typically have Medicaid fraud units that look into not only financial fraud related to health care, but also investigate when issues include abuse or misuse of medications (which can result in unnecessary and excessive, and thus fraudulent, payments to providers and pharmaceuticals with federal dollars). Those agencies and offices, as well as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as the report notes, should be vital in promoting awareness of the dangers of antipsychotic drugs and reducing that use far more than the government has in the past.

See Related Blog Posts:

Psychiatrist Pleads Guilty and Settles Civil Claims

Medicaid Fraud Units Also Target Abuse and Neglect