WASHINGTON (AP) — Drug abusers are exploiting Medicare prescription's benefit to score large quantities of painkillers, and taxpayers have to foot most of the bill, according to a new report by congressional investigators.
About 170,000 Medicare recipients received prescriptions from multiple doctors for 14 frequently abused medications in 2008, the Government Accountability Office found in an investigation for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. Medicare officials say they're limited in what they can do to stop the abuse.
A Medicare recipient in Georgia got prescriptions for 3,655 oxycodone pills — more than a four-year supply of the painkiller — from 58 different prescribers. Another, in California, got prescriptions for a nearly five-year supply of fentanyl patches and pills from 21 different prescribers. Fentanyl is a very strong narcotic used to treat relentless cancer pain.
The cost of the questionable prescriptions amounted to $148 million in 2008. Overall, taxpayers pay three-fourths of the cost of the Medicare prescription drug program, which covers some 28 million seniors and disabled people for about $55 billion a year.
Prescription drug abuse is a growing problem for all types of insurance plans. Narcotics obtained with a prescription from unwitting doctors can feed a personal addiction, or be resold in a lucrative underground market. The doctors who write the scripts often don't realize their patients are visiting other physicians to get the same medications.
The scam is known as "doctor shopping." And Medicare appears to be hamstrung in confronting it, the report concluded.
Many private insurance plans and state Medicaid programs restrict patients who appear to be abusing drugs so they can only get narcotics from specific doctors and pharmacies. But Medicare officials told investigators that federal law does not allow the prescription program to limit the access of beneficiaries who appear to be abusing drugs.
That leaves "little recourse for preventing known doctor shoppers from obtaining hydrocodone, oxycodone and other highly abused drugs," the report said.
Sens. Tom Carper, D-Del., and Scott Brown, R-Mass., are seeking ways to tighten Medicare rules. Carper chairs a subcommittee holding a hearing on the problem.
Using claim records, investigators illustrated how doctor shopping works: One unnamed Medicare beneficiary visited four doctors over 27 days to obtain a 150-day stock of oxycodone. The first doctor wrote a prescription for a 15-day supply, the second doctor for 20 days, and so on. The beneficiary made repeat visits to three of the four doctors.
The investigation, first reported by The New York Times, found the worst abuse among 600 Medicare beneficiaries, each getting prescriptions from more than 20 doctors. Painkillers hydrocodone and oxycodone were involved in more than 8 out of 10 cases of doctor shopping identified by investigators, who referred several cases to Medicare fraud investigators.
In the context of the program as a whole, the number of drug abusers is small. The 170,000 whose prescription-use patterns aroused suspicion accounted for less than 2 percent of all the Medicare recipients who received prescriptions for the 14 frequently abused drugs.
Investigators attributed most of the cases of questionable behavior to younger beneficiaries, eligible for Medicare because of a disability and not their age. Nearly three-fourths of them also had low incomes.
In its response to the investigators' findings, Medicare said it recognizes the need to prevent abuse of the prescription program and is looking for ways to best accomplish that.
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