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Podcast: Rise in Medicare’s Controlled Substance Prescriptions

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

In 2012, amid a national crackdown on misuse of dangerous controlled substances, doctors prescribed an even larger number of these drugs than they did in 2011 to patients in Medicare’s Part D program.

Using our updated Prescriber Checkup tool, ProPublica’s Charlie Ornstein examined doctors who wrote more than 3,000 prescriptions for these Schedule 2 drugs – powerful narcotic painkillers and stimulants with the highest potential for abuse and dependence – and found that about one in five doctors had faced disciplinary or legal action involving their licenses. This was particularly pronounced among the doctors who prescribed the most, he tells ProPublica Editor-in-Chief Steve Engelberg on the podcast. Among the top 20 prescribers, 12 of them have faced disciplinary actions by their state medical boards or criminal charges related to their medical practices.

As Ornstein highlights in his latest report, this Part D data draws a roadmap to the doctors who prescribe controlled substances most frequently. Yet for many years, Medicare wasn’t proactively looking at its own data or taking action against providers whose patterns were troubling.

Now, Medicare is striving to further examine doctors, and will have the authority to dismiss those with worrisome prescribing histories starting in mid-2015. And with the government’s new Open Payments site, which tracks drug company payments to doctors, we’ll also be able to see who is prescribing a lot of a certain company’s pills, and the backgrounds of the doctors receiving money.

“Now that you can link up these databases, it just gives you the power to ask questions, and it shouldn't be just the media that's asking the questions,” Ornstein says. “It should be regulators, it should be lawmakers, and it should be members of the public.”

Listen to this podcast on iTunes, SoundCloud or Stitcher. For more on this investigation, you can read Ornstein’s latest Medicare report and use our Prescriber Checkup tool to compare Medicare’s Part D doctors by state.

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