NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Medicare Paying for Unnecessary Drug Testing for Seniors

November 13, 2014

It's far from likely that a senior citizen would use the drug "angel dust" (PCP), but Medicare spent $14 million in 2012 to test seniors for the drug. In fact, reports the Wall Street Journal, the federal drug program spent $445 million in 2012 to test for drug abuse among seniors, a 1,423 percent increase from five years earlier.

What's responsible for the increase? Doctors who provide pain medication to patients are encouraged to test their patients for drug abuse, or the tests may reveal that patients are actually selling the pills to others, an issue that NCPA Senior Fellow Devon Herrick recently wrote about in a report on prescription drug fraud. In years past, doctors used basic urine tests, but Medicare became concerned that some health care providers were abusing the tests in order to bill the program for more money. As a result, Medicare limited billing for those tests, setting caps on payments. High-tech drug tests, however, have no billing limitations, and some health care providers began using those tests instead, billing Medicare for tests for a variety of drugs, including cocaine, heroin, angel dust and ecstasy. Medicare pays providers a separate amount for each drug that is tested.

According to the Wall Street Journal, some health care providers are actually making more money from drug testing than they are from treating patients.

How many seniors use illegal drugs? According to federal statistics, one out of every 1,000.

Source: Christopher Weaver and Anna Wilde Mathews, "Doctors Cash In on Drug Tests for Seniors, and Medicare Pays the Bill," Wall Street Journal, November 11, 2014.


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