Could Medicare Part D be an inadvertent enabler of prescription drug abuse?

UPDATE, Jan. 7: Medicare proposes giving itself authority to ban abusive prescribers, ProPublica reports.

By Molly Burchett
Kentucky Health News

An examination of the Medicare Part D program that Congress established a decade ago, dedicating billions of dollars to subsidizing prescription drug purchases for 35 million elderly and disabled Americans, uncovers the program’s risky lack of oversight — and suggests that it might be contributing to Kentucky’s prescription-drug abuse epidemic.

An analysis of Medicare prescription records by ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom, found that the program has failed to properly monitor safety, ProPublica’s Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein and Jennifer LaFleur write in The Washington Post. And despite their findings that many providers prescribe antipsychotics, narcotics and other drugs known to be dangerous for older adults, Medicare officials told them it’s not their job to monitor for unsafe prescribing or to stop doctors with criminal histories.

The largely unchecked prescribing habits of Medicare providers and the increased availability of prescription drugs suggests that Part D has inadvertently enabled prescription drug abuse, by making drugs available for abuse by Medicare patients, their friends, acquaintances and family members, particularly teenagers. A 2010 national survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that 65 percent of teens who report
that they have abused prescription medicine got them from friends, family and acquaintances rather than illegal drug dealers.

In Kentucky, drug overdose, mostly from prescription drugs, is the leading cause of death, and the widespread availability of drugs and easy access to drugs are some reasons for this trend, says the 2012 combined report from the Kentucky Justice & Public Safety Cabinet. In addition to taking the lives of loved ones, drug overdose takes a huge financial toll on the state, and a recent study shows that the Medicare program bankrolls the single largest percentage of drug overdose inpatient hospitalizations.

Inpatient hospitalizations for drug overdoses by percentage of total charges,
among Kentucky residents treated in Kentucky acute-care hospitals, 2010

Medicare alone was billed for 30 percent of all inpatient hospitalizations for drug overdoses in Kentucky from 2000 through 2010, totaling over $440.7 million, says a report by the Kentucky Injury Prevention Research Center. During those 11 years, the number of unintentional drug-overdose hospitalizations of Medicare beneficiaries increased 222 percent.

The fact that almost a third of overdose hospitalizations involve Medicare patients is concerning, said Van Ingram, executive director for the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy. In addition to these alarming statistics, Medicare and Medicaid incurred nearly $4 million worth of charges for drug-overdose visits to emergency rooms in 2010, which represents 41 percent of the total charges, says the KIPRC report. Also, during the period from 2008 to 2010, the number of unintentional Medicare drug-overdose emergency visits increased almost 44 percent.

Among prescription drugs, opiates and similar narcotics are most likely to be abused and most likely to lead to death. Since Medicare Part D began covering prescription drugs in 2006, drug overdose deaths involving opiates have increased almost 80 percent in Kentucky, says the KIPRC report.

ProPublica’s Prescriber Checkup database shows that 30 percent of Medicare Part D patients have filled at least one narcotic prescription. The most common drug provided by Part D in Kentucky is hydrocodone-aceteminophen, which is an opiate painkiller known commercially as Lortab, Lorcet or Vicodin. Part D paid more than $12.6 million on 958,933 claims for hydrocodone-aceteminophen from 2007 to 2010.

Medicare officials told ProPublica that the government isn’t responsible for monitoring these types of prescriptions because that is the duty of private health plans administering the program. Yet, health plans aren’t given the tools to do so, the reporters write, and no one party has been slated the task of ensuring safe
medication-use. This complacent mentality suggests Medicare officials, who also say it’s not the providers’ duty to “prevent inappropriate prescribing for individual patients,” could be passively contributing to the drug-safety issue of prescription medications covered by Part D.

In addition to indicating that providers should not industriously discourage dangerous prescription drug usage, ProPublica’s examination of Part D data showcases numerous examples of Medicare officials failing to act against providers with troubled prescribing backgrounds. Such examination initiates a worthwhile discussion about the program’s role in encouraging, or well, at least not actively combating, prescription drug abuse. Click here to visit Kentucky’s Medicare Part D Prescriber Checkup. Individual doctors can be looked up.

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