Medicare Paid for 40 Million Anti-Anxiety Drug Prescriptions in One Year

Tuesday, June 16, 2015
Pfizer CEO Ian C. Read (photo: Getty Images)

When Congress decided to allow Medicare to cover anti-anxiety medications, the result was very noticeable, very quickly.


In 2013, following a change in law approved by Congress, the federal health program for seniors paid $377 million for nearly 40 million prescriptions of drugs that combat anxiety. The year before—and for more than a decade prior—Medicare’s Part D drug program didn’t pay for any such prescriptions. The figures were disclosed by the investigative news site, ProPublica.


The congressional action allowing the Medicare coverage didn’t cause seniors to suddenly decide to start taking these drugs because they realized they could now afford them. Nor was there a sudden onset of anxiety by millions of people. These folks had, for the most part, been taking the drugs prior to the coverage. The 38 million prescriptions that Medicare paid for that year were mostly refills and all for a single segment of the population—an indication of how rampant the use of these drugs is, and how much doctors are willing to rely on them for their patients.


Some of the drugs have been “linked to abuse and an increased risk of falls and fractures among the elderly, who make up most of the Medicare population,” ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein and Ryann Grochowski Jones reported.


The millions of prescriptions covered a class of drugs called benzodiazepines, which included Alprazolam (brand name Xanax: 12,545,978 prescriptions), Lorazepam (Ativan: 9,720,014), Clonazepam (Klonopin: 8,923,315), Diazepa (Valium: 3,990,078) and Temazepa (Restoril: 3,184,787).


“A worrisome aspect of the newly released data is that some doctors appear to be prescribing benzodiazepines and narcotic painkillers to the same patients, increasing the risk of misuse and overdose,” wrote Ornstein and Jones. “The drugs, paired together, can depress breathing.”


Anti-anxiety meds can be addictive, cause disorientation, and have a longer-lasting effect in the elderly. Consequently, the American Geriatrics Society advises against their use by seniors suffering from insomnia or agitation, said the authors.


ProPublica said the startling Medicare statistics that its investigation uncovered reflect “a failed policy initiative by Congress.”

-Danny Biederman, Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

One Nation, Under Sedation: Medicare Paid for Nearly 40 Million Tranquilizer Prescriptions in 2013 (by Charles Ornstein and Ryann Grochowski Jones, ProPublica)

Xanax: Drug Information And Side Effects (Medical News Today)

Federal Grand Jury Indicts FedEx for Conspiring to Deliver Illegal Drugs (No Officials Charged) (by Steve Straehley, AllGov)


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