Effort To Curtail Use Of Antipsychotic Drugs In Nursing Homes

Dec 10, 2014

The head of an Arkansas non-profit group dedicated to improving the quality of care for nursing home residents says an NPR series reinforces the need for stricter enforcement of an existing law.

The federal Nursing Home Reform Act was passed 27 years ago, saying antipsychotic medications should not be used to sedate residents suffering from Alzheimer's or other forms of dementia.

But an NPR analysis finds the practice is still widespread and that harsh penalties are almost never imposed against facilities.

Martha Deaver, president of the group Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents, said it’s an especially big problem in the state.

"Over the last several years Arkansas has been noted as being the state with the highest level of overuse of antipsychotic medications which are more normally called by advocates "chemical restraints," used as a way of being able to cut costs by cutting staff," Deaver said.

She says the medications often leave patients so sedated they can’t speak and therefore require fewer employees to oversee them.

Two years ago, the federal government started a campaign to get nursing homes to reduce the use of antipsychotic drugs for dementia, instead saying the medications should only be given for their intended purposes of treating serious mental health illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

NPR reports a 15 percent decline nationwide since the program began.  In the second part of its series, the network also reported a growing number of facilities are finding ways to alleviate agitation from residents suffering from dementia without the risky drugs.

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association, which represents more than two-thirds of the nation's nursing homes, told NPR that indicates the efforts are working.

"I think the program is an example of a real success between the government and the private sector," he said. "I think that the data will continue to show that collaboration works."

But a breakdown of the data cited by NPR shows many nursing homes in Arkansas, to widely varying degrees, still use antipsychotic drugs for treating those with dementia.

Deaver said the key to ensuring the well-being of nursing home residents is having an appropriate number of employees caring for them.

"Last year alone in Arkansas nursing homes during the annual survey cycle there were over 2,000 violations cited for harm or death to the residents. The number one quality indicator for the health of nursing home residents, which has been clarified by every Congressional report is adequate staffing," Deaver said.