The US Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Inspector General (OIG) has launched a probe into the prescribing of atypical antipsychotic medications to children under Medicaid.
“We will determine the extent to which children ages 18 and younger had Medicaid claims for atypical antipsychotic drugs during the selected time frame,” the office said in a summary of the plan.
“On the basis of medical record reviews, we will also determine the extent to which the atypical antipsychotic drug claims were for off-label uses and for indications not listed in one or more of the approved drug compendia.”
The time frame is a 6-month period from January to June 2011, when 84,654 children were prescribed antipsychotics in the 5 states selected for the probe, where Medicaid prescriptions are the highest — California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida — said OIG spokesperson Donald White.
Psychiatric experts have been recruited to evaluate approximately 700 of the medical records as part of the ongoing effort, White told Medscape Medical News.
“We are currently conducting the medical record reviews, and the probe will likely last several months, possibly into 2014,” he said.
Lack of Funding for CBT
The probe is focusing on atypical antipsychotics such as aripiprazole (Abilify, Otsuka Pharmaceutical Co., Ltd.), risperidone (Risperdal, Ortho-McNeil-Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc.), quetiapine fumarate (Seroquel, AstraZeneca Pharmaceuticals LP), and olanzapine (Zyprexa, Eli Lilly and Company).
A previous probe by the OIG on the overuse of antipsychotics in nursing homes, which resulted in action by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) to reduce the use of the drugs by 15%, was launched in response to a request from Congress; however, the new probe was launched by the OIG itself, White said.
Concern over the overprescribing of antipsychotics to children in the Medicaid program is not new — a 2004 study found that children in the healthcare system from low-income families were 4 times as likely to be prescribed antipsychotics as those who were privately insured.
As reported by Medscape Medical News, a more recent study showed that the use of antipsychotic medications among Medicaid-insured children from low- or very-low-income families soared 7-fold to 12-fold between 1997 and 2006.
Among side effects of concern associated with atypical antipsychotics are weight gain and diabetes, and little is known on the long-term neurologic effects of the drugs used in early childhood.
One important reason why the prescribing of antipsychotics to children is believed to be higher among children under Medicaid coverage is that the system simply is not as accommodating to the best-known alternative — cognitive-behavioral therapy, according to Pensacola, Florida–based child psychiatrist Scott R. Benson, MD.
“The reimbursement for the kind of cognitive-behavioral therapy that could help these children is lower with Medicaid, so children who are covered by private insurance may have access to a better range of therapies,” he told Medscape Medical News.
“But part of this is our own fault on a professional level — we [psychiatrists] have not made a good enough case for the value of psychotherapy in helping children,” added Dr. Benson, who is a member of the American Psychiatric Association.
Infants, Toddlers Prescribed Atypicals
Dr. Benson said clinicians too often associate the option of cognitive-behavioral therapy with being arduous and time-consuming.
“The patient doesn’t necessarily have to be coming in 3 times a week over 10 years — there is plenty of evidence showing, especially for children who have been traumatized, that even short-term therapy, maybe once-a-week visits over 20 weeks, can be a very effective treatment.”
Among the more alarming figures regarding prescribing atypical antipsychotics to children are those showing prescriptions to the very young, including toddlers and infants.
As reported in a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, the inspector general’s 5-state probe found 482 children aged 3 years and younger who were prescribed antipsychotics during the 6-month period in question, including 107 children who were aged 2 years and younger.
Six children prescribed the drugs were younger than 1 year, and 1 was listed as being 1 month old.
Importantly, the records did not identify the diagnoses involved, and Dr. Benson speculated that some may have included children with certain severe disorders, such as autism.
“It’s important to remember that the majority of these prescriptions are not even written by child psychiatrists,” he said. “In the case of the very young children, these may have represented prescriptions from neurologists who were treating patients with severe autistic disorders.”
Others, however, may have been practitioners such as pediatricians, who, facing heavy patient loads, are often under pressure to make a quick diagnosis and reach for a quick fix — an antipsychotic.
“A practitioner may observe a few behaviours, say ‘that’s terrible,’ and simply prescribe something the patient doesn’t really need because there wasn’t enough time or interest in doing the kind of good, standard evaluation that all of us would expect for our children,” Dr. Benson said.
“Certainly all patients deserve that, regardless of their insurance situation.”
A complex range of psychiatric issues may cause a child to appear dysregulated, and a full evaluation is essential before writing that prescription, said Mary Margaret Gleason, MD, an assistant professor in child psychiatry and pediatrics at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana.
“Especially in younger children, the causes of impulsive or disruptive behaviors can be quite broad,” she toldMedscape Medical News.
“A thorough assessment looking into psychological, environmental, and biological factors that might cause someone to look impulsive and disruptive needs to be done to know what is driving the impulsivity.”
“One of the biggest things that needs to be looked at, for instance, is if the child has been exposed to trauma, and if someone is considering using a medication that has as long a list of potential side effects as atypical antipsychotics, they do need to really be certain of what they’re treating first.”