Upfront

Physicians are widely prescribing antipsychotics to people in nursing homes for off-label conditions such as dementia, and Medicare is largely picking up the bill, even though Medicare guidelines don't allow for off-label prescription reimbursements, according to an audit released in May by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of the Inspector General.

The findings underscore the fact that antipsychotics are often used when behavioral treatments would be more effective, psychologists say.

The office reviewed Medicare claims of people age 65 and older living in nursing homes in 2007—the most recent data at the time the study began—and found that 51 percent of all claims contained errors, resulting $116 million worth of antipsychotics such as Abilify, Risperdal and Zyprexa being charged to Medicare by people whose conditions didn't match the drugs' intended uses. Among the audit's findings are:

  • 14 percent of the 2.1 million elderly people living in nursing homes use Medicare to pay for at least one antipsychotic prescription.

  • 83 percent of all Medicare claims for antipsychotics are, based on medical reviews, prescribed for off-label conditions, specifically dementia.

  • 22 percent of the claims for antipsychotics do not comply with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services' guidelines outlining how drugs should be administered, including those guidelines stating that nursing home residents should not receive excessive doses and doses over excessive periods of time.

The report suggests that Medicare overseers reassess their nursing home certification processes and develop methods besides medical review to confirm that medications are prescribed for appropriate conditions.

Why such high rates of overprescription for antipsychotics? HHS Inspector General Daniel Levinson argued in the report that pharmaceutical companies' marketing tactics are often to blame for antipsychotics' overprescribing. Victor Molinari, PhD, a geropsychologist at the University of South Florida in Tampa, says that another important issue is the dearth of psychologists trained to provide behavioral interventions to people in nursing homes. While he agrees that people in nursing homes are taking too much antipsychotic medication, he believes nursing home physicians are often responding to a lack of options.

Many nursing home administrators are quite savvy in their mental health knowledge and would prefer to offer their residents the option of behavioral treatments, Molinari says, but when residents need immediate calming, physicians will turn to antipsychotic medication because it's quick and available. Additionally, he says, many nursing home staff aren't educated enough about nonmedical options, so they go straight for the antipsychotics.

"It follows the saying, 'If your only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail,'" he says. "Nursing homes are not just straitjacketing residents with medications as a matter of course, but because there are a host of barriers to giving them optimal care."

—M. Price