The New York Times
  • Reprints
  • This copy is for your personal, noncommercial use only. You can order presentation-ready copies for distribution to your colleagues, clients or customers here or use the "Reprints" tool that appears next to any article. Visit for samples and additional information. Order a reprint of this article now.

    May 9, 2011

    Antipsychotic Drugs Called Hazardous for the Elderly


    Nearly one in seven elderly nursing home residents, nearly all of them with dementia, are given powerful atypical antipsychotic drugs even though the medicines increase the risks of death and are not approved for such treatments, a government audit found.

    More than half of the antipsychotics paid for by the federal Medicare program in the first half of 2007 were “erroneous,” the audit found, costing the program $116 million for those six months.

    “Government, taxpayers, nursing home residents as well as their families and caregivers should be outraged and seek solutions,” Daniel R. Levinson, inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services, wrote in announcing the audit results.

    Mr. Levinson noted that such drugs — which include Risperdal, Zyprexa, Seroquel, Abilify and Geodon — are “potentially lethal” to many of the patients getting them and that some drug manufacturers illegally marketed their medicines for these uses “putting profits before safety.”

    The audit is an unusual assessment by the government of whether doctors are treating Medicare patients appropriately in nursing homes. Mr. Levinson suggested that the government should collect information on the diagnoses given Medicare patients so that the government can assess whether the drugs prescribed to them are appropriate.

    While common in the private sector, such basic oversight is unheard of in the Medicare program and would almost certainly be opposed by doctors’ groups and many in Congress who view government intrusions into the doctor-patient relationship as inappropriate. In response to the audit, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that some of the inappropriate use of antipsychotics in elderly nursing home patients is a result of drug makers’ paying kickbacks to nursing homes to increase prescriptions for the medicines.

    Omnicare Inc., a pharmacy chain for nursing homes, paid $98 million in November 2009 to settle accusations that it received kickbacks from Johnson & Johnson and other drug makers for antipsychotic prescriptions.

    Medicare officials said that diagnosis information is not generally included with prescriptions so the government cannot assess in real time whether prescription payments are appropriate.

    While the Food and Drug Administration has warned doctors that using antipsychotic drugs in elderly patients with dementia increases their risks of death, doctors continue the practice because they have few other good choices, said Dr. Daniel J. Carlat, editor in chief of The Carlat Psychiatry Report, a medical education newsletter for psychiatrists.

    “Doctors want to maximize quality of life by treating the patient’s agitation even if that means the patient will die a bit sooner,” Dr. Carlat said.

    The government auditors found that of the 2.1 million elderly patients in nursing homes during the first six months of 2007, 304,983 had at least one Medicare claim for an antipsychotic medicine. Nursing home residents received 20 percent of the 8.5 million claims for antipsychotic medicines for all Medicare beneficiaries at a cost of $309 million during those six months.

    The auditors found that 83 percent of antipsychotic prescriptions for elderly nursing home residents were for uses not approved by federal drug regulators, and 88 percent were to treat patients with dementia — for whom the drugs can be lethal.

    “These results are alarming,” said Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa, who asked for the audit. “Medicare officials need to pay attention.”

    Federal rules require that any drugs that are paid for by the government be given only for uses that are approved either by the government or one of three independent drug usage encyclopedias. Auditors found that 51 percent, or 726,000 of 1.4 million claims, for antipsychotic medicines did not meet this criterion and were thus paid for by the government improperly.

    Government rules also ban drugs that are used in excessive doses or duration, even if patients are found to have a condition for which the drug is appropriate. Auditors found that 22 percent, or 317,971 of 1.4 million claims, for antipsychotic medicines failed this standard.