By Charles Ornstein
This story was co-published with the Boston Globe, the Miami Herald and Health News Florida.
In 2012, Medicare’s massive prescription drug program didn’t spend a penny on popular tranquilizers such as Valium, Xanax and Ativan.
The following year, it doled out more than $377 million for the drugs.
While it might appear that an epidemic of anxiety swept the nation’s Medicare enrollees, the spike actually reflects a failed policy initiative by Congress.
More than a decade ago, when lawmakers created Medicare’s drug program, called Part D, they decided not to pay for anti-anxiety medications.
Some of these drugs, known as benzodiazepines, had been linked to abuse and an increased risk of falls and fractures among the elderly, who make up most of the Medicare population.
But doctors didn’t stop prescribing the drugs to Medicare enrollees. Patients just found other ways to pay for them.
When Congress later reversed the payment policy under pressure from patient groups and medical societies, it swiftly became clear that a huge swath of Medicare’s patients were already using the drugs despite the lack of coverage.
In 2013, the year Medicare started covering benzodiazepines, it paid for nearly 40 million prescriptions, a ProPublica analysis of recently released federal data shows.
Generic versions of the drugs 2014 alprazolam (which goes by the trade name of Xanax), lorazepam (Ativan) and clonazepam (Klonopin) 2014 were among the top 32 most-prescribed medications in Medicare Part D that year.
And it appears these were not new prescriptions. Continue reading