WASHINGTON – The number of senior citizens getting narcotic painkillers and anti-anxiety medications under Medicare’s prescription drug program is climbing sharply, and those older patients are being put on the drugs for longer periods of time, a USA TODAY examination of federal data shows.
From 2007-2012, the number of patients 65 and older getting Medicare prescriptions for powerful opioid pain medications rose more than 30% to upward of 8.5 million beneficiaries, the data show. Use of some of the most commonly abused painkillers, such as hydrocodone and oxycodone, climbed more than 50%. And the supply of each narcotic provided to the average recipient grew about 15% to about three months.
The figures suggest that one in five of the nation’s 43 million seniors get Medicare prescriptions to take pills like Vicodin or Percocet for their aches and pains, often on a long-term basis.
Meanwhile, the number of seniors getting Medicare prescriptions for anti-anxiety medications, such as alprazolam (also sold as Xanax), busipirone and lorazepam (also sold as Ativan), rose about 25% to more than 700,000. By 2012, the average patient got about five months’ worth – about 10% more than in 2007. The data for anti-anxiety medications are less comprehensive than for narcotics because one of the most popular classes of anti-anxiety drugs, benzodiazepines, got very limited coverage until last year under the Medicare drug benefit, known as Part D.