Reducing gun violence by increasing access to mental health services may cost billions of taxpayer dollars and give drugmakers that help treat mental illness a revenue windfall. But will it reduce gun violence? The answer is uncertain.
In the wake of the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, there have been repeated calls to increase access to mental health services as a way to reduce gun violence in the U.S., even though the evidence is weak at best that those services actually reduce gun violence.
Absent from these calls to action is any sense of how much that policy would cost. Many argue that any cost is worthwhile if it prevents just one needless death due to gun violence. But we live in austere fiscal times and knowing the price tag before taking action makes sense (click on the image above to enlarge).
A just-published Bloomberg Government Study estimates that the potential impact on the federal deficit due to increased spending on mental health services could exceed $260 billion from 2014 to 2021.
At Dr. Huberto Merayo’s bustling psychiatry practice in Coral Gables, Fla., hundreds of poor patients on Medicaid walked away each year with prescriptions for powerful antipsychotic drugs.
Merayo’s prescriptions for the drugs totaled nearly $2 million in 2009 alone, state records show.
The 59-year-old psychiatrist is also in demand by the makers of these drugs. He’s earned more than $111,000 since 2009 delivering promotional talks for AstraZeneca, Eli Lilly & Co. and Pfizer, according to ProPublica’s database of drug-company payments to doctors.
This year, Florida regulators finally challenged Merayo’s enthusiasm for the pricey drugs, which are used to treat schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. A state review found he hadn’t documented why patients were prescribed the pills and had given them to patients with heart ailments or diabetes despite label warnings.
In May, Florida summarily ended his contract with Medicaid. But the action, though decisive, followed years of high prescribing by Merayo, according Florida’s own statistics. And he was booted only after public questioning by U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who had asked states to investigate such cases.
Merayo’s situation is one of at least three in which Florida allowed physicians to keep treating and prescribing drugs to the poor amid clear signs of possible misconduct.
The state’s responses were marked by head-scratching errors, including the misspelling of Merayo’s name on official documents, and lengthy delays.
In another example, Florida allowed Dr. Joseph M. Hernandez of Lake City to continue prescribing narcotic pain pills to Medicaid patients for more than a year after he was arrested and charged in 2010 for trafficking in them.
One of the most disturbing trends in mental health today is the increasing use of powerful antipsychotic medication to treat behavioral problems in children, even very young children. According to a 2009 report by the Food and Drug Administration, there are 500,000 children in the United States being administered regular doses of antipsychotics. Medicaid data shows public health monies spent on antipsychotic drugs for children exceeding $30 million in New Jersey and topping $90 million in Texas. It is a trend that has built relentlessly for the past ten years and continues unabated.
I find the use of these drugs on children to be appalling almost beyond words. Having worked as a mental health professional for many years, I am well acquainted with these medications. This class of drugs, sometimes referred to as neuroleptics, are major tranquilizers and are primarily used and intended for controlling hallucinations and delusions in cases of psychosis and schizophrenia. For an adult with severe schizophrenia, these medications may be a glimmer of hope, but it is always a difficult risk-benefit analysis because there are potentially severe side effects and reactions. Permanent neurological damage can occur in the form of tardive dyskenisia, and sudden death can occur from a reaction called neuroleptic malignancy syndrome. With newer forms of antipsychotics, these type of side effects are less frequent and less severe, but continue to be a risk depending on the reaction of the individual’s body. However, newer, “atypical,” antipsychotics present new dangers to the patient, metabolic changes that result in a dramatic increase in the instances and severity of diabetes and heart disease. The result is that adults on antipsychotic medications have a life span that is 20 years shorter then the average person.Continue reading…