Evidence of Rise in Medicare Beneficiaries on Pain, Anti-Anxiety Meds
June 11, 2014
Katie Sullivan, MA
An analysis examining Medicare data found that the number of elderly beneficiaries receiving narcotic painkillers and anti-anxiety medications drastically increased from 2007 to 2012. Those patients were also found to be taking medications for much longer periods of time than other patients.

To be exact, 8.5 million patients aged 65 years and older received prescriptions under Medicare for opioid pain medications—a 30% increase over 5 years. As well, the use of drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone grew more than 50%, while the amount of each narcotic provided to the average beneficiary rose 15% to about 3 months’ supply. The data suggests that nearly 1 in 5 Medicare beneficiaries is using the drugs for pain management on a long-term basis.

“The big surprise for me is the amount of time that people are being left on these drugs—it’s really concerning,” said Linda Simoni-Wastila, BSPharm, PhD, professor at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

The number of senior patients who were prescribed anti-anxiety medications, including alprazolam and buspirone, also rose by 25% to 700,000 beneficiaries. They received an average of 5 months’ supply of the medications in 2012—a 10% increase from 2007.

The statistics are concerning for public health officials, as the long-term use of pain and antianxiety medications can put patients at risk for abuse or dependence. 

Officials from CMS said, “Medicare takes instances of prescription drug misuse very seriously and recently put in place aggressive new rules that take further steps to prevent drug abuse and overutilization.”

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