Medicare Forking Out Millions to Drug Test Seniors

Last updated on November 4th, 2019

A number of doctors across the country are exercising “questionable ethics” by charging Medicare millions of dollars in order to test senior citizens for illicit drugs traditionally unassociated with this age group… like cocaine and PCP.

Out of Control Spending

A recent Wall Street Journal analysis of Medicare payment data found that the program spent an astronomical amount of money on what were likely unnecessary drug tests. A few of those issues were:

  • A mind-blowing $14 million spent solely on testing seniors for PCP use.
  • In 2012, Medicare shelled out $445 million for 22 high-tech drug tests.
  • Some doctors are actually making more money from drug test-related Medicare payments than they’re making from treating patients.
  • According to an analysis by Donald M. Berwick and Andrew D. Hackbarth of RAND, unnecessary drug testing is costing the U.S. roughly $158 to $226 billion per year.

Frivolous Drug Testing

Sue Brown, a laboratory director in Brunswick, Ga., said she has never seen someone over the age of 65 test positive for angel dust.

A 2012 survey by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also found that only one in 1,000 senior citizens either abuse or are addicted to illegal drugs. But because physicians can make tremendous profits by billing for drug tests, seniors continue to be unnecessarily tested for illicit drugs.

“Doctors like to blame patients and lawsuits for the proliferation of unnecessary tests and procedures,” said Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog. “But the truth is that more tests mean more revenue.”

No One is Immune to Addiction

Though testing seniors for drugs like heroin and LSD is highly questionable, that doesn’t mean senior citizens are immune to drug abuse and addiction.

“There’s this growing group of seniors, they have pain, they have anxiety…and a lot of (doctors) have one thing in their tool box – a prescription pad.-Mel PohlEmergency room visits for prescription drugs doubled between 2007 and 2011 among seniors between the ages of 55 and 65. What’s more, alcohol and drug abuse rates among adults age 65 and up have more than doubled in the last decade, while another 300,000 seniors are also reportedly misusing their medications.

“There’s this growing group of seniors, they have pain, they have anxiety…and a lot of (doctors) have one thing in their tool box – a prescription pad,” said Mel Pohl, director of the Las Vegas Recovery Center. “The doctor wants to make their life better, so they start on the meds.”

Seniors at Risk

Peter A. Bamberger and Samuel B. Bacharach suggest in their book, Retirement and the Hidden Epidemic, that retirement and having too much idle time could be contributing to this growing addiction.

“Seniors may turn to substance abuse as a means of curbing feelings of loneliness, anxiety or plain boredom,” said substance abuse counselor Steve Wollman. “For anyone who’s an addict, [that’s] the number one trigger.”

Additional Reading: Has Drug Testing at Work Made a Positive Impact?

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