Was mom given dangerous drugs in the nursing home? It’s part of Big Pharma’s marketing plan

The Obama administration is finally addressing the expensive, dangerous and usually unnecessary psychiatric drugs that are footed by taxpayers in federal health insurance programs. It has proposed that insurers may limit Medicare coverage of certain classes of drugs that include Wellbutrin, Paxil and Prozac for depression and Abilify and Seroquel for schizophrenia.

How expensive are these drugs? One hundred middle dose pills of the widely marketed Abilify cost as much as $1,644. One hundred pills of Geodon are $958; Invega, $1,789; Risperdal, $953; Seroquel, $2,000; and Zyprexa, $1,680, if the brand name drugs are used, which drug company lobbyists hope. Thanks to their lobbying, insurers have to pay “all or substantially all” of such depression and schizophrenia drug costs because the drugs enjoy “protected status” in the Medicare program. Such protected pills account for as much as 33 percent of total outpatient drug spending under Part D of Medicare, says the New York Times.

Not surprisingly, Big Pharma and its patient front groups are livid that the heisting of US taxpayers dollars could be curtailed. Abilify alone has earned over $4 billion a year! “The proposal undermines a key protection for some of the sickest, most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries,” said Andrew Sperling, a lobbyist at the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) which is fighting the Obama proposal.

As much as 75 percent of NAMI’s donations come from drug companies, says the New York Times, and it has been investigated by Congress. Portraying itself as “patients,” NAMI also successfully fights states’ efforts to limit use of the most pricey Medicaid psychiatric drugs, in parallel lobbying. “Some of these medicines routinely top the list of the most expensive drugs that states buy for their poorest patients,” says the Times. NAMI is “hugely influential in many state capitols,” it adds.

The heart of Big Pharma and NAMI lobbying is making sure expensive drugs are on Medicare and Medicaid formularies and that doctors prescribe them first—before and instead of lower priced drugs. The expensive-drugs-first marketing is couched as “patient choice” or another “treatment option” by Pharma lobbyists, as if there’s no difference between a $45 prescription and $450 prescription. Antipsychotic drugs work in different ways in the body explains Sperling and “You get much better outcomes when a doctor can work with patients to figure out which medications will work best for them.” Ka-ching.

The problem is newer, more expensive drugs are not necessarily better than older, less expensive drugs and they are often more dangerous. One chilling example is an estimated 15,000 elderly people die in nursing homes a year from inappropriately given antipsychotic medications, according to FDA drug reviewer David Graham, MD. Pharma is aware of the profiteering and “laughing all the way to the bank,” Graham speculated.

Antipsychotics like Seroquel carry warnings that they cause death in elderly people who have dementia but are nevertheless in wide use in many geriatric, federally-supported facilities. So much for NAMI’s concern for “the sickest, most vulnerable Medicare beneficiaries.”

NAMI is not the only group to play on the public’s heart strings to keep drug revenues flowing. Pharma’s aggressive opioid lobby says patients with legitimate pain will suffer if drugs like Oxycontin, killing 17,000 Americans a year, are regulated. Similarly, if Abilify and Seroquel are regulated within Medicare, someone will suffer—Big Pharma.

Martha Rosenberg is a freelance journalist and the author of the highly acclaimed “Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health,” published by Prometheus Books. Check her Facebook page.

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3 Responses to Was mom given dangerous drugs in the nursing home? It’s part of Big Pharma’s marketing plan

  1. When my father went into a nursing home for Senile Dementia/Alzheimer’s, he was given a drug called Haldol. In the home, the two-milligram pills were termed kitten-doses by the nurses. This was after a four-month stay at the late St. Vincent’s hospital in NYC where doctors were carefully trying to determine if indeed he had the “Big A”. But in the home, the Haldol dosage was upped to five milligrams after a few shout-outs by my dad, feeling the nurses were personally intruding on his space (a private room), he came to think of as the private office of his gloveshop. He thought of the nurses as sewing-machine operators, and shouted at them to take his calls from Hong-Kong promptly, even though it was me calling. Bottom line, I think the higher-milligram Haldol worsened his condition, increased more fantasy thinking, slurred his speech and thinking, and interfered with his balance. In fact, he fell in the shower, broke his hip, and had to be operated on. When he returned to the home from the hospital, he barely recognized me and fantasized I was mismanaging his money (taking commissions on it). He was put into intensive care literally with the screamers and (pardon me) the vegetables on a separate floor. He barely spoke or ate and lost interest in life altogether. Not long after, he had a stroke and passed. Perhaps the kitten-doses of Haldol might have sustained his life longer, though he might have been more irascible to deal with. For me, the latter option was preferable. For Dad, I believe it was deadly.

  2. Haldol is a drug that has no place within a geriatric setting. The normal dose is 0.5-2.0 mg three times a day. A lower dosage is recommended for the elderly. Yet, if one evaluates the pharmaceutics prescribed for residents of nursing homes one can find much higher doses of Haldol prescribed.

    I found an elderly woman (age 76) lying in a fetal position. When I insisted that the drug be discontinued she became alert within 72 hours and asked to be up in a wheelchair. When this woman was transferred to a different nursing home the medical director stated that there was no reason for her to be receiving an anti psychotic drug. She still needed nursing care but she did not need to be “gorked” or disabled psychologically.

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