Overuse of Antipsychotic Drugs Threatens Lives of Elderly

June 18, 2013

Elder abuse lawyers at Pintas & Mullins highlight a troubling phenomenon in our nation's nursing homes: the unnecessary use of antipsychotic drugs. Medications such as Seroquel, Risperdal and Zyprexa are being given to seniors throughout the country for uses not approved by the FDA.

elderly-medications_l.jpg In 2012, Johnson & Johnson had to pay the federal government more than $180 million in a consumer fraud settlement case after it marketed Risperdal to elderly patients with dementia. Risperdal is an antipsychotic drug used to treat schizophrenia, and is not intended to treat dementia in any way.

Potential side effects of such drugs are far-reaching and very serious, among them including diabetes, strokes, and hyperglycemia. Johnson & Johnson has reportedly set aside an undisclosed amount of money to settle claims of illegally marketing Risperdal for uses not mentioned on its labels. In general, the FDA approves antipsychotic medications only for the treatment of bipolar and schizophrenia.

In 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) started tracking the use of antipsychotic drugs in nursing homes. This was spurred by a report by the Office of Inspector General showed widespread abuse of these medications in recovery centers.

Residents of nursing homes, particularly those with advanced dementia, often engage in erratic behavior, which can be difficult to manage for staff that is overworked, underpaid, and spread too thin. In recent years, the care in such assisted living centers has shifted to be largely pharmaceutical-based. One can say without reservation that there is a tendency for administrators to overuse psychiatric medicine and underuse other, more laborious or time-consuming methods.

S & F Management, which operates under the brand name Windsor, is based in Los Angeles and medicates its residents at a higher rate than any of the other large chains in California. More than 25% of Windsor residents without schizophrenia received antipsychotics in 2011-2012, compared to the California average of 17%.

Windsor operates such facilities as Carriage House Nursing Center and Windsor Gardens of Fullerton, where residents are often sedated with these drugs without consent. One facility, Windsor Palms Care Center of Artesia, specializes in patients with psychological problems. Here, 60% of patients are on antipsychotics.

One patient of Windsor Gardens of Fullerton, 94-year-old Joanna Sienkiewicz, suffered from dementia and was prescribed 15 milligrams of the antipsychotic Abilify per day for "agitation and resisting care." Her family contends that the facility did not get the required consent to give Sienkiewicz the drug, and believes it was prescribed mainly just to keep her from acting out.

The FDA issued its strongest warning, a black box warning, on antipsychotics warning physicians that their use in patients with dementia significantly increases the likelihood of death, strokes, falls and heart attacks. Unfortunately, however, there are no laws currently prohibiting doctors from prescribing these medications for uses not intended on the label. A 2011, a Department of Health and Human Services investigation found that 83% of antipsychotic drug claims in nursing homes were for uses not approved by the FDA.

Sienkiewicz died in 2006 after her blood became infected and she was forced to be moved to a hospital. During the four months she spent at Windsor facilities, she went from a spry and bossy personality to being listless and barely there. Another man, 71-year-old Richard Millikan of Windsor Gardens of Anaheim, was kept thoroughly sedated, despite his family never giving consent for the medication. Federal data shows that Windsor Gardens of Anaheim gives antipsychotics to 43% of its residents without schizophrenia, more than triple the state average.

Currently in California only six out of its 927 nursing homes do not use antipsychotic drugs. Reformers highlight the need for more therapy and fewer pharmaceuticals in managing difficult behavior. Nursing home abuse lawyers at Pintas & Mullins encourage families of loved ones in assisted living facilities to stay up to date on this topic. If you or a loved one was seriously injured by wrongful-or over-medication in a nursing home, you may be entitled to significant compensation for medical bills and pain and suffering.