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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Opioid Use Is Rising Among Some Medicare Recipients, Report Shows

Rich Pedroncelli
Forty percent of people getting Social Security Disability Insurance take opiod pain releivers, according to a new Dartmouth study.

Researchers at Dartmouth College have learned that more than 40 percent of people getting Social Security Disability Insurance take opioid pain relievers.

Many of those patients fill six or more different painkiller prescriptions per year, typically from different doctors.

The new study is raising concerns about potentially harmful health effects.

Nancy Morden is a family physician and the lead author of the report funded by the National Institutes on Aging and conducted by the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice. She says data collected from around the country on Medicare beneficiaries under 65 — most with disabilities — shows that chronic opioid use is rising faster in that population than in the general public.

“The rate of use that we observe is much higher than the national trends,” Morden says.

And she says prescribing too many painkillers at unnecessarily high doses can be harmful, especially to low-income patients who are already living with disabilities.

“Harm in terms of risk for overdose death, harm in terms of risk for medical side effects, so respiratory depressions, hormone imbalance, depression, these are really serious consequences for people with chronic doses and high doses,” she explains. 

"Respiratory depressions, hormone imbalance, depression ... these are really serious consequences for people with chronic doses and high doses." - Nancy Morden, family physician and lead author of the report

Morden says the payers — Medicare, in this case — are covering those rising costs, and that those dollars might better be re-allocated, either to help treat the consequences of opioid overuse, or to fund alternatives to it.

“Other modalities need to be explored and other modalities need to be equally supported by the payers, things like physical therapy, social support, mental health care, addiction services for those who need it if they become addicted to medications through this path,” she says.

Morden says women in her study were at greater risk of becoming chronic opioid users than men, and that dosages and specific opioids varied widely by region. Florida shows one of the highest rates, Minnesota among the lowest, with Vermont landing more or less in the middle.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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