Big Pharma Profits from Grandmother's Little Helpers

| Tue May 5, 2009 2:47 PM EDT

The Kaiser Daily Health Policy Report today summarizes two new studies from the journal Health Affairs, documenting the explosion in the use–and cost–of psychotropic drugs over the last decade. One study found that between 1996 and 2006, “prescriptions for mental health medications increased by 73% among U.S. adults and by 50% among children.”  As of 2006, one in 10 U.S. adults takes at least one prescription for this purpose.

I’ve written before about the growth of antidepressant use among the over-65 crowd (myself included), which seems to be the new way to deal with what a drag it is getting old. But the new study also finds dramatic growth in the use of other medications: ”The study found that the number of U.S. seniors receiving psychotropic medications, including dementia and antipsychotic drugs, doubled during that time period.”

This points, in particular, to the increasing treatment of older people with cognitive loss, and any kind of agitated or unruly behavior, as “psychotic.” It’s impossible to know for sure, but I suspect this has something to do with the fact that the drug companies have been pushing their lucrative psychiatric medications on this vulnerable population–the most notorious (and illegal) example being Lilly’s campaign to urge doctors to prescribe the antipsychotic drug Zyprexa for off-label use on elderly patients with dementia.

Unsurprisingly, the second study published in Health Affairs documents a steep rise in spending for mental health care during the same ten-year period–more than 30%, with ”nearly all of the increase caused by psychiatric drug costs.” Big Pharma reaps even more rewards from mental health than from other medical fields: “Drugs accounted for 51% of mental health care costs in 2006, while drugs accounted for 26% of spending for all other health care costs, according to national data.” The Kaiser article makes note of the trend toward ”greater reliance of the use of psychiatric drugs compared with other forms of psychosocial treatments such as therapist visits.”

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This is especially bad news for old timers, since the weakest link in their health coverage isn't psychotherapy--which Medicare covers pretty generously--but prescription drugs. This is due to the inadequate Medicare Part D program, which was designed to benefit drug and insurance companies at the expense of beneficiaries (and taxpayers). And it turns out that elders with mental health issues get particularly screwed by Part D: A recent study found that on average, we will fall into the infamous “donut hole”--the gap where all coverage for prescriptions ceases--two months earlier than others.

Several reports issued since the recession began have shown that older people simply stop filling some of their prescriptions when they can’t afford them. So what’s going to happen when all us geezers who have come to depend on Big Pharma’s little helpers stop taking our meds?

This post also appears on Unsilent Generation, James Ridgeway's blog on the politics of aging.

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