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Psychiatrist and Federal Inspector General Debate Use of Drugs in Nursing Homes

I’ve written here several times as a Philadelphia medical malpractice lawyer about the use of antipsychotics in nursing home patients with dementia. The FDA has not approved antipsychotics for use controlling outbursts from patients with dementia, but a May study from the federal Department of Health and Human Services found that 88 percent of antipsychotic prescriptions filled by Medicare were for patients with dementia. Critics say this exposes the elderly patients to unnecessary health risks, while advocates say they’re the best option available and the risks are overstated. On June 1, CNN.com ran op-ed articles on both sides of the debate, authored by HHS inspector general Daniel Levinson and psychiatrist Daniel Carlat.

Levinson said his office began investigating the use of atypical antipsychotics, a newer and more expensive generation of drugs, after a member of Congress asked about their use. Of the nursing home patients taking atypical antipsychotics under Medicare, he wrote, one-fifth were taking them in a way that violated Medicare standards. About half of the claims shouldn’t have been covered at all, he said. This was especially concerning, Levinson wrote, in the wake of multiple settlements by drug companies for illegally marketing atypical antipsychotics and in one case, paying kickbacks.

In his piece, Carlat acknowledged that illegal advertising happens. Nonetheless, he defended atypical antipsychotics as less dangerous than studies have suggested. Many of the causes of death named in the studies, he said, are the most common causes of death for dementia patients overall. And despite being prescribed off-label, the drugs are effective at calming dementia patients who get confused and agitated as their memories and abilities fade. Geriatric psychiatrists try non-drug interventions, he said, but they do not always work.

As a Pennsylvania nursing home lawyer, I wonder how much of Carlat’s article applies to a typical nursing home patient. The trouble with antipsychotics in dementia patients is frequently that their doctors are prescribing automatically, without a real examination. The doctors in question may not be psychiatrists or geriatric specialists, and nursing homes know that Medicare-funded drugs are quicker and less expensive than behavioral interventions. For this reason, I hesitate to believe that atypical antipsychotics are not misused. As a Philadelphia injury lawyer, I also wonder whether Carlat glossed over the risks of atypical antipsychotics. The drugs’ increased risk of cardiovascular and metabolic complications has led to the FDA ordering a black box warning for the labels, the strongest available. And using antipsychotics as off-label sedatives may cut down on yelling and physical attacks, but keeping patients too drugged to experience life is a form of Pennsylvania nursing home abuse.

If your family has suffered a death or a serious illness related to abuse or neglect at a nursing home, you should call Rosenbaum & Associates for help. For a free consultation with our experienced attorneys, call us toll-free at 1-800-7-LEGAL-7 or send us a message online.

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