Phony Diagnoses Hide High Rates of Drugging at Nursing Homes

The handwritten physician’s order was simply eight phrases lengthy, however it solved an issue for Dundee Manor, a nursing residence in rural South Carolina struggling to deal with a brand new resident with extreme dementia.

David Blakeney, 63, was stressed and agitated. The residence’s physician needed him on an antipsychotic treatment known as Haldol, a robust sedative.

“Add Dx of schizophrenia for use of Haldol,” learn the physician’s order, utilizing the medical shorthand for “diagnosis.”

But there was no proof that Mr. Blakeney really had schizophrenia.

Antipsychotic medicine — which for many years have confronted criticism as “chemical straitjackets” — are harmful for older folks with dementia, almost doubling their likelihood of dying from coronary heart issues, infections, falls and different illnesses. But understaffed nursing houses have typically used the sedatives in order that they don’t have to rent extra employees to deal with residents.

The dangers to sufferers handled with antipsychotics are so excessive that nursing houses should report back to the federal government what number of of their residents are on these potent medicines. But there is a crucial caveat: The authorities doesn’t publicly disclose the use of antipsychotics given to residents with schizophrenia or two different situations.

With the physician’s new prognosis, Mr. Blakeney’s antipsychotic prescription disappeared from Dundee Manor’s public report.

Eight months following his admission with a protracted listing of illnesses — and after round the clock sedation, devastating weight reduction, pneumonia and extreme bedsores that required one of his ft to be amputated — Mr. Blakeney was lifeless.

The physician’s phone order including Mr. Blakeney’s schizophrenia prognosis at Dundee Manor.Credit…Yvonne Blakeney

A New York Times investigation discovered the same sample of questionable diagnoses nationwide. The end result: The authorities and the trade are obscuring the true fee of antipsychotic drug use on susceptible residents.

The share of residents with a schizophrenia prognosis has soared 70 p.c since 2012, in line with an evaluation of Medicare knowledge. That was the yr the federal authorities, involved with the overuse of antipsychotic medicine, started publicly disclosing such prescriptions by particular person nursing houses.

Today, one in 9 residents has obtained a schizophrenia prognosis. In the final inhabitants, the dysfunction, which has robust genetic roots, afflicts roughly one in 150 folks.

Schizophrenia, which regularly causes delusions, hallucinations and dampened feelings, is nearly at all times recognized earlier than the age of 40.

“People don’t just wake up with schizophrenia when they are elderly,” mentioned Dr. Michael Wasserman, a geriatrician and former nursing residence govt who has turn into a critic of the trade. “It’s used to skirt the rules.”

1 in 9 Residents Diagnosed With Schizophrenia

Schizophrenia diagnoses are hovering in nursing houses, however associated behaviors like delusions and hallucinations aren’t.

15% of nursing residence residents

Schizophrenia

diagnoses

10%

Delusions

5%

Hallucinations

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

15% of nursing residence residents

Schizophrenia

diagnoses

10%

Delusions

5%

Hallucinations

2013

2015

2017

2019

2021

By The New York Times | Source: Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services MDS three.zero Frequency Reports

Some portion of the rise in schizophrenia diagnoses displays the truth that nursing houses, like prisons, have turn into a refuge of final resort for folks with the dysfunction, after massive psychiatric hospitals closed many years in the past.

But unfounded diagnoses are additionally driving the rise. In May, a report by a federal oversight company mentioned almost one-third of long-term nursing residence residents with schizophrenia diagnoses in 2018 had no Medicare report of being handled for the situation.

For nursing houses, cash is on the road. High charges of antipsychotic drug use can damage a house’s public picture and the star score it will get from the federal government. Medicare designed the scores system to assist sufferers and their households consider services utilizing goal knowledge; a low score can have main monetary penalties. Many services have discovered methods to cover severe issues — like insufficient staffing and haphazard care — from authorities audits and inspectors.

One end result of the incorrect diagnoses is that the federal government is understating what number of of the nation’s 1.1 million nursing residence residents are on antipsychotic medicines.

According to Medicare’s net web page that tracks the trouble to cut back the use of antipsychotics, fewer than 15 p.c of nursing residence residents are on such medicines. But that determine excludes sufferers with schizophrenia diagnoses.

To decide the total quantity of residents being drugged nationally and at particular houses, The Times obtained unfiltered knowledge that was posted on one other, little-known Medicare net web page, in addition to facility-by-facility knowledge affected person advocacy group bought from Medicare by way of an open data request and shared with The Times.

The figures confirmed that at least 21 p.c of nursing residence residents — about 225,000 folks — are on antipsychotics.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversees nursing houses, is “concerned about this practice as a way to circumvent the protections these regulations afford,” mentioned Catherine Howden, a spokeswoman for the company, which is named C.M.S.

“It is unacceptable for a facility to inappropriately classify a resident’s diagnosis to improve their performance measures,” she mentioned. “We will continue to identify facilities which do so and hold them accountable.”

Representatives for nursing houses mentioned medical doctors who diagnose sufferers and write the prescriptions to deal with them are accountable, regardless that these medical doctors typically work in partnership with the nursing houses.

“If physicians are improperly diagnosing individuals with serious mental health issues in order to continue an antipsychotic regimen, they should be reported and investigated,” Dr. David Gifford, the chief medical officer at the American Health Care Association, which represents for-profit nursing houses, mentioned in an announcement.

Medicare and trade teams additionally mentioned that they had made actual progress towards lowering antipsychotic use in nursing houses, pointing to a big drop since 2012 within the share of residents on the medicine.

But when residents with diagnoses like schizophrenia are included, the decline is lower than half what the federal government and trade declare. And when the pandemic hit in 2020, the pattern reversed and antipsychotic drug use elevated.

A Doubled Risk of Death

For many years, nursing houses have been utilizing medicine to manage dementia sufferers. For almost as lengthy, there have been requires reform.

In 1987, President Ronald Reagan signed a regulation banning the use of medicine that serve the curiosity of the nursing residence or its employees, not the affected person.

But the observe continued. In the early 2000s, research discovered that antipsychotic medicine like Seroquel, Zyprexa and Abilify made older folks drowsy and extra more likely to fall. The medicine have been additionally linked to coronary heart issues in folks with dementia. More than a dozen medical trials concluded that the medicine almost doubled the chance of dying for older dementia sufferers.

In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration required producers to place a label on the medicine warning that they elevated the chance of dying for sufferers with dementia.

Seven years later, with antipsychotics nonetheless broadly used, nursing houses have been required to report back to Medicare what number of residents have been getting the medicine. That knowledge is posted on-line and turns into half of a facility’s “quality of resident care” rating, one of three main classes that contribute to a house’s star score.

The solely catch: Antipsychotic prescriptions for residents with any of three unusual situations — schizophrenia, Tourette’s syndrome and Huntington’s illness — wouldn’t be included in a facility’s public tally. The idea was that for the reason that medicine have been accepted to deal with sufferers with these situations, nursing houses shouldn’t be penalized.

The loophole was opened. Since 2012, the share of residents labeled as having schizophrenia has gone as much as 11 p.c from lower than 7 p.c, data present.

The diagnoses rose at the same time as nursing houses reported a decline in behaviors related to the dysfunction. The quantity of residents experiencing delusions, for instance, fell to four p.c from 6 p.c.

A Substitute for Staff

Caring for dementia sufferers is time- and labor-intensive. Workers should be educated to deal with difficult behaviors like wandering and aggression. But many nursing houses are chronically understaffed and don’t pay sufficient to retain staff, particularly the nursing assistants who present the majority of residents’ day by day care.

Studies have discovered that the more severe a house’s staffing scenario, the higher its use of antipsychotic medicine. That means that some houses are utilizing the highly effective medicine to subdue sufferers and keep away from having to rent additional employees. (Homes with staffing shortages are additionally the almost definitely to understate the quantity of residents on antipsychotics, in line with the Times’s evaluation of Medicare knowledge.)

Star Ratings and Antipsychotic Drugs

Nursing residence residents usually tend to obtain antipsychotic medicines at services with poor staffing.

zero

10%

20% of residents on antipsychotic medicine

1 star services

2 star

three star

four star

5 star

Percentage of residents on antipsychotic medicine

zero

10%

20%

1 star services

2 star

three star

four star

5 star

By The New York Times | Sources: C.M.S., Long Term Care Community Coalition. Chart exhibits common use fee in 2019 for services with at least 30 residents, grouped by stars obtained for staffing underneath the C.M.S. score system.

The pandemic has battered the trade. Nursing residence employment is down greater than 200,000 since early final yr and is at its lowest stage since 1994.

As staffing dropped, the use of antipsychotics rose.

Even some of the nation’s main consultants on elder care have been stunned by the frequency of false diagnoses and the overuse of antipsychotics.

Barbara Coulter Edwards, a high Medicaid official within the Obama administration, mentioned she had found that her father was given an incorrect prognosis of psychosis within the nursing residence the place he lived regardless that he had dementia.

“I just was shocked,” Ms. Edwards mentioned. “And the first thing that flashed through my head was this covers a lot of ills for this nursing home if they want to give him drugs.”

Homes that violate the foundations face few penalties.

In 2019 and 2021, Medicare mentioned it deliberate to conduct focused inspections to look at the problem of false schizophrenia diagnoses, however these plans have been repeatedly placed on maintain as a result of of the pandemic.

In an evaluation of authorities inspection experiences, The Times discovered about 5,600 situations of inspectors citing nursing houses for misusing antipsychotic medicines. Nursing residence officers advised inspectors that they have been meting out the highly effective medicine to frail sufferers for causes that ranged from “health maintenance” to efforts to cope with residents who have been “whining” or “asking for help.”

In greater than 99 p.c of the circumstances, inspectors concluded that the violations represented solely “potential,” not “actual,” hurt to sufferers. That means the findings are unlikely to harm the houses’ scores.

The Blakeneys at Dundee Manor in January 2017, 5 months earlier than Mr. Blakeney’s dying.Credit…Courtesy of Yvonne Blakeney

‘He Was So Little’

Mr. Blakeney’s spouse of 4 many years and one of his grownup daughters mentioned in interviews that he had by no means exhibited any psychological well being issues. Then he developed dementia, and his conduct grew to become troublesome to handle. His spouse, Yvonne Blakeney, discovered that she may not take care of him.

Over the subsequent a number of months, Mr. Blakeney was out and in of medical services, the place he was handled for issues together with a urinary tract an infection. He grew to become more and more confused and upset.

In April 2016, he went to the Lancaster Convalescent Center, a nursing residence in Lancaster, S.C., the place a physician labeled him with schizophrenia on a kind that licensed the use of antipsychotic medicine. That prognosis, nonetheless, didn’t seem on his subsequent hospital data.

Lancaster’s administrator declined to remark.

Six months later, Mr. Blakeney arrived at Dundee Manor, a 110-bed residence in Bennettsville, S.C. At the time, it obtained just one out of 5 stars in Medicare’s score system. The low rating mirrored poor marks from authorities inspectors who had visited the power. It was additionally penalized for insufficient staffing.

When Mr. Blakeney was admitted, schizophrenia didn’t seem in his lengthy listing of illnesses, which included hypertension, pneumonia and superior dementia, in line with medical data disclosed in a lawsuit that his widow later filed towards the house.

Two weeks after his arrival, Dundee Manor’s medical director, Dr. Stephen L. Smith, instructed the house so as to add the schizophrenia prognosis in order that Mr. Blakeney may proceed to obtain Haldol. He was additionally prescribed Zyprexa, in addition to the sleeping capsule Ambien and trazodone, which is commonly given to assist sufferers sleep.

Ms. Blakeney’s lawyer, Matthew Christian, mentioned he had not seen any proof that anybody performed a psychiatric analysis of Mr. Blakeney.

Mr. Blakeney, who had labored for many years as a farmhand, was as soon as tall and muscular. But the medicine left him confined to his mattress or wheelchair, exhausted. When his spouse and sister visited, they couldn’t wake him, even once they introduced his favourite meal of fried hen. Over eight months, his weight dropped from 205 to 128 kilos.

“I cried because he was so little,” Ms. Blakeney mentioned. “You could see his rib cage, just sticking out.”

Mr. Blakeney’s medical data present that a number of folks warned that he was too sedated and receiving too many medicine.

Dundee Manor’s precise fee of antipsychotic drug use was obscured by the massive quantity of residents who have been recognized with situations like schizophrenia.Credit…Sean Rayford for The New York Times

Three weeks after he arrived at Dundee Manor, a bodily therapist famous his excessive lethargy, even when she washed his palms and face. In mid-November, after Mr. Blakeney misplaced 12 kilos in a single week, a dietitian left a observe for the physician. “Consider medication adjustment,” she wrote, including that he was “sleeping all day and through meals.”

That month, an out of doors pharmacist crammed out a kind recommending that Mr. Blakeney’s doses of Haldol and Zyprexa be diminished to adjust to federal pointers that require nursing houses to progressively scale back doses of antipsychotics.

On a kind with Dr. Smith’s title and signature, a field labeled “disagree” was checked. “Staff feels need” for the continued doses, the shape famous.

It was precisely the kind of resolution — prescribing highly effective medicine to assist the nursing residence and its employees, not the affected person — that the 1987 regulation was alleged to ban.

Dr. Smith declined to remark. Dundee Manor didn’t reply to requests for remark.

According to Medicare’s public database of nursing residence scores, solely 7 p.c of Dundee Manor’s long-term residents have been getting antipsychotic medicine within the third quarter of 2018. That put the nursing residence in a great gentle; the nationwide common was roughly double.

But Dundee Manor’s comparatively low determine was a mirage created by the massive quantity of residents who have been recognized with situations like schizophrenia. In actuality, The Times discovered, 29 p.c of Dundee Manor’s residents have been on antipsychotics at the time, in line with unpublished Medicare knowledge obtained by means of public data requests by California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

A Growing Gap in Antipsychotic Drug Reporting

Official charges of antipsychotic drug use by nursing houses exclude residents recognized with schizophrenia. Unfounded diagnoses contributed to a decline in recent times, which seems much less sharp when all residents are included.

25% of residents

on antipsychotics

20%

Overall fee

Includes all residents

15%

Official fee

Excludes schizophrenia,

different problems and

short-term residents

10%

5%

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020

2021

25% of residents

on antipsychotics

20%

Overall fee

Includes all

residents

15%

Official fee

Excludes schizophrenia,

different problems and

short-term residents

10%

5%

2013

2015

2017

2019

2021

By The New York Times | Sources: National Partnership to Improve Dementia Care in Nursing Homes; Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services MDS three.zero Frequency Reports

Five-Star Problems

False schizophrenia diagnoses aren’t confined to low-rated houses. In May, the inspector normal of the Department of Health and Human Services, for instance, recognized 52 nursing houses the place at least 20 p.c of all residents had an unsupported prognosis. Medicare rated greater than half of these houses with at least 4 of the utmost 5 stars. (The inspector normal’s report didn’t establish the nursing houses. The Times obtained their identities by means of a public-records request.)

One was the Hialeah Shores Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Miami, a 106-bed residence bordered by palm timber and a white painted fence. It is a five-star facility that, in line with the official statistics, prescribed antipsychotics to about 10 p.c of its long-term residents in 2018.

That was a extreme understatement. In reality, 31 p.c of Hialeah Shores residents have been on antipsychotics, The Times discovered.

In 2018, a state inspector cited Hialeah Shores for giving a false schizophrenia prognosis to a girl. She was so closely dosed with antipsychotics that the inspector was unable to evoke her on three consecutive days.

There was no proof that the girl had been experiencing the delusions frequent in folks with schizophrenia, the inspector discovered. Instead, employees at the nursing residence mentioned she had been “resistive and noncooperative with care.”

Dr. Jonathan Evans, a medical director for nursing houses in Virginia who reviewed the inspector’s findings for The Times, described the girl’s worry and resistance as “classic dementia behavior.”

“This wasn’t five-star care,” mentioned Dr. Evans, who beforehand was president of a gaggle that represents medical employees in nursing houses. He mentioned he was alarmed that the inspector had determined the violation induced solely “minimal harm or potential for harm” to the affected person, regardless of her heavy sedation. As a end result, he mentioned, “there’s nothing about this that would deter this facility from doing this again.”

Representatives of Hialeah Shores declined to remark.

Seven of the 52 houses on the inspector normal’s listing have been owned by a big Texas firm, Daybreak Venture. At 4 of these houses, the official fee of antipsychotic drug use for long-term residents was zero, whereas the precise fee was a lot increased, in line with the Times evaluation evaluating official C.M.S. figures with unpublished knowledge obtained by the California advocacy group.

More than 39 p.c of residents at Daybreak’s Countryside Nursing and Rehabilitation, for instance, have been receiving an antipsychotic drug in 2018, regardless that the official determine was zero.

A lawyer for Daybreak, Charles A. Mallard, mentioned the corporate couldn’t remark as a result of it had offered its houses and was shutting its enterprise.

At Hialeah Shores in Miami, 31 p.c of long-term residents have been on antipsychotic medicine in 2018. That was triple the publicly disclosed fee.Credit…Scott McIntyre for The New York Times

A Sprinkle of Depakote

As the U.S. authorities has tried to restrict the use of antipsychotic medicine, nursing houses have turned to different chemical restraints.

Depakote, a medicine to deal with epilepsy and bipolar dysfunction, is one more and more widespread alternative. The drug could make folks drowsy and will increase the chance of falls. Peer-reviewed research have proven that it doesn’t assist with dementia, and the federal government has not accepted it for that use.

But prescriptions of Depakote and comparable anti-seizure medicine have accelerated for the reason that authorities began publicly reporting nursing houses’ use of antipsychotics.

Between 2015 and 2018, the latest knowledge obtainable, the use of anti-seizure medicine rose 15 p.c in nursing residence residents with dementia, in line with an evaluation of Medicare insurance coverage claims that researchers at the University of Michigan ready for The Times.

And whereas Depakote’s use rose, antipsychotic prescriptions fell 16 p.c.

“The prescribing is far higher than you would expect based on the actual amount of epilepsy in the population,” mentioned Dr. Donovan Maust, a geriatric psychiatrist at the University of Michigan who performed the analysis.

About half the complaints that California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform receives about inappropriate drugging of residents contain Depakote, mentioned Anthony Chicotel, the group’s high lawyer. It is available in a “sprinkle” kind that makes it simple to slide into meals undetected.

“It’s a drug that’s tailor-made to chemically restrain residents without anybody knowing,” he mentioned.

In the early 2000s, Depakote’s producer, Abbott Laboratories, started falsely pitching the drug to nursing houses as a solution to sidestep the 1987 regulation prohibiting services from utilizing medicine as “chemical restraints,” in line with a federal whistle-blower lawsuit filed by a former Abbott saleswoman.

According to the lawsuit, Abbott’s representatives advised pharmacists and nurses that Depakote would “fly under the radar screen” of federal laws.

Abbott settled the lawsuit in 2012, agreeing to pay the federal government $1.5 billion to resolve allegations that it had improperly marketed the medicine, together with to nursing houses.

Nursing houses are required to report back to federal regulators what number of of their sufferers take all kinds of psychotropic medicine — not simply antipsychotics but additionally anti-anxiety medicines, antidepressants and sleeping tablets. But houses should not have to report Depakote or comparable medicine to the federal authorities.

“It is like an arrow pointing to that class of medications, like ‘Use us, use us!’” Dr. Maust mentioned. “No one is keeping track of this.”

Lobbying for More

In 2019, the primary lobbying group for for-profit nursing houses, the American Health Care Association, printed a brochure titled “Nursing Homes: Times have changed.”

“Nursing homes have replaced restraints and antipsychotic medications with robust activity programs, religious services, social workers and resident councils so that residents can be mentally, physically and socially engaged,” the colourful two-page leaflet boasted.

Last yr, although, the trade teamed up with drug corporations and others to push Congress and federal regulators to broaden the listing of situations underneath which antipsychotics don’t should be publicly disclosed.

“There is specific and compelling evidence that psychotropics are underutilized in treating dementia and it is time for C.M.S. to re-evaluate its regulations,” wrote Jim Scott, the chairman of the Alliance for Aging Research, which is coordinating the marketing campaign.

The lobbying was financed by drug corporations together with Avanir Pharmaceuticals and Acadia Pharmaceuticals. Both have tried — and up to now failed — to get their medicine accepted for treating sufferers with dementia. (In 2019, Avanir agreed to pay $108 million to settle costs that it had inappropriately marketed its drug to be used in dementia sufferers in nursing houses.)

‘Hold His Haldol’

Ms. Blakeney mentioned that solely after hiring a lawyer to sue Dundee Manor for her husband’s dying did she be taught he had been on Haldol and different highly effective medicine. (Dundee Manor has denied Ms. Blakeney’s claims in court docket filings.)

During her visits, although, Ms. Blakeney seen that many residents have been sleeping most of the time. A pair of girls, specifically, at all times caught her consideration. “There were two of them, laying in the same room, like they were dead,” she mentioned.

In his first few months at Dundee Manor, Mr. Blakeney was out and in of the hospital, for bedsores, pneumonia and dehydration. During one hospital go to in December, a physician famous that Mr. Blakeney was unable to speak and will not stroll.

“Hold the patient’s Ambien, trazodone and Zyprexa because of his mental status changes,” the physician wrote. “Hold his Haldol.”

Mr. Blakeney continued to be prescribed the medicine after he returned to Dundee Manor. By April 2017, the bedsore on his proper heel — a end result, partly, of his not often getting out of mattress or his wheelchair — required the foot to be amputated.

In June, after weeks of fruitless trying to find one other nursing residence, Ms. Blakeney discovered one and transferred him there. Later that month, he died.

“I tried to get him out — I tried and tried and tried,” his spouse mentioned. “But when I did get him out, it was too late.”