Nearly 1 in 3 Medicare beneficiaries prescribed opioid painkiller last year

Drugs

Open up a senior’s medicine cabinet and there's a good chance of finding addictive, prescription opioid painkillers.

Nearly one-third of Medicare beneficiaries received at least one prescription for commonly abused opioid painkillers, such as Oxycontin and fentanyl, in 2015, according to a new report from the Office of Inspector General (OIG) for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

With a worsening opioid epidemic in the country, nearly 12 million Medicare beneficiaries received at least one prescription of an opioid painkiller last year at a cost of $4.1 billion, according to the OIG report. Those who did receive a prescription, received an average of five prescriptions or refills.

"We are concerned about the high spending and the number of people receiving opioids. This raises concerns about abuse,” Miriam Anderson, who led the study, said in an announcement.

Opioid use is not just a problem for young people, Frederic Blow, Ph.D., who directs addiction research at the University of Michigan’s medical school and who was not part of the study, said in the announcement. Seniors face the risk of overdose and addiction.

The announcement said doctors should help patients consider alternatives for chronic pain, such as meditation, yoga, walking and weight loss, which allow them to minimize opioid use. However, opting for new ways to treat pain is not an easy task, according to a report in The New York Times. Obstacles include inconsistent insurance coverage, as well as some resistance from patients and doctors who know it is easy and effective to treat pain with opioids. Insurance plans may not cover alternativve treatments, which vary widely in cost, or impose strict limits on them, according to the article.

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