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Seniors Struggling with Opioid Misuse: Senate Aging Committee Examines Opioid Crisis’ Effect on Older Americans

Washington, D.C.—In 2016, one in three people with Medicare Part D—14.4 million beneficiaries—received an opioid prescription, 500,000 received high amounts of opioids, and 90,000 were at “serious risk” of misuse or overdose according to the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (HHS OIG). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration also reported that opioid misuse doubled between 2002 and 2014 among Americans ages 50 and older.

In an effort to shed light on this often overlooked population in the opioid crisis, U.S. Senators Susan Collins (R-ME) and Bob Casey (D-PA), the Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Aging Committee, held a hearing today titled, “Preventing and Treating Opioid Misuse Among Older Americans.” 


The Committee examined the continued challenges of identifying opioid misuse among older adults, the efforts to reduce older Americans’ dependence on opioids, and the need to expand access to treatment for those battling substance and opioid misuse.  As the baby boomer generation ages and the population of older adults in the United States grows, this increasingly urgent public health concern is only expected to intensify.


“Many perceive the face of opioid addiction as young.  The epidemic, however, intersects just as much with older adults,” said Senator Collins. “While there is no silver bullet to ending this scourge, Congress and this Committee are fighting back on multiple fronts.  We are making progress, but we must continue to reexamine this issue from every angle, as the opioid crisis continues to tighten its grip not only on older adults, but also on the future generations of America.” 


“The opioid crisis is ravaging our communities and harming every generation—from newborn babies to aging grandparents,” said Senator Casey. “Older Americans are among the unseen victims of this epidemic. We must expand access and affordability to evidence-based treatment and support for all, and we must ensure that those services are affordable.”


Last year, the CDC reported that the amount of opioids prescribed in 2015 was enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks.  Older Americans are at increased risk of opioid misuse, largely due to the high incidence of opioid prescribing among this population.  Many older adults experience pain related to acute illness or injury, and they are more likely to have chronic disorders associated with pain.  Health care providers play a critical role in ensuring older adults’ pain is managed while reducing the risk for addiction.


In his testimony, Nicolas Terry, a Professor of Law and the Executive Director of the William S. and Christine S. Hall Center for Law and Health at the Indiana University, noted that “older adults make up about 25% of long-term opioid users, and Medicare beneficiaries are the fastest growing population of diagnosed opioid use disorders.” 


Dr. Charles Pattavina, an emergency medicine physician at St. Joseph Hospital in Bangor, Maine, described how he sees “patients every day who are impacted by this crisis, including many who are older.”  He called for removing barriers to inpatient residential treatment and medication assisted therapy, as well as addressing the shortage of psychiatric services.


William Stauffer, the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Recovery Organizations Alliance, told the Committee about his struggles with substance abuse, which he received treatment for more than three decades ago.  He has not used alcohol or other drugs since then, and has dedicated his career to helping others recover.  He explained that “supporting access to all medications, treatments, and recovery support services that can assist an older adult into the recovery process is a critically important first step in assisting adults over 65 accessing care for an opioid use disorder.”


Gary Cantrell, the HHS OIG Deputy Inspector General, pledged that his agency “has made combatting the opioid crisis a top enforcement and oversight priority.”  He described a recent OIG health care fraud enforcement action which charged more than 120 defendants for allegedly prescribing and distributing opioids and other dangerous narcotics.


Click HERE to read the witnesses’ testimonies.