Elderly Selling Pain Medications

Expert says dramatic rise in prescriptions has spurred illegal sales, lethal overdoses


Dr. Alan Michels offered the Rim Country Coalition some shocking figures on how a huge increase in prescriptions for opiates has spurred the rise of a black market for recreational use.

Dr. Alan Michels offered the Rim Country Coalition some shocking figures on how a huge increase in prescriptions for opiates has spurred the rise of a black market for recreational use. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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An estimated 40 percent of the elderly are selling their pain medications to supplement their Social Security incomes.

Dr. Alan Michels shared that shocking statistic at a Friday meeting of the Rim Country Coalition – Connecting Seniors in the Rim Country.

He said doctors are prescribing pain medication far more often than they did 20 years ago. Changes in medical practice have forced the change. If a patient says they are in pain, medical professionals are almost obligated to prescribe or run the risk of lawsuits, said Dr. Michels.

Before these shifts took place, pain medication prescriptions contained an average of only 12 pills. Now, the average is 120, Michels said.

“More people have the attitude they should not be in pain,” he said.

The shift in prescribing patterns has gone hand-in-hand with a dramatic rise in the number of people who overdose on prescription pain medication — usually those using the drugs recreationally.

The patients given pain medication prescriptions are at risk of theft because the narcotics fetch a high price on the street. Often, either younger members of the family or health aides steal the medications, Michels said.

Sometimes, the patients themselves sell the medications. Dr. Michels noted that about 20 months ago, it was discovered that a patient was seeing several doctors, both in the Rim Country and the Phoenix area, and getting pain medications prescribed by all of them and then selling the drugs.

Michels said he now recommends his patients put their pain medications in a safe.

He said the Drug Enforcement Administration wants physicians to do drug tests on everybody.

“That would be awkward and cost prohibitive,” Michels said.

A shift to a greater reliance on electronic health records included in recent federal reforms may provide an alternative means of tracking who is getting pain medication. The reforms have already spurred the creation of a medical database, to which pharmacies have access. With the new regulations in place, it is possible to track the prescribing and purchasing of pain medications.

Members of the coalition discussed ways to alert their senior clients to the problems associated with pain medication: recognizing the symptoms of dependence and the risk of theft.

The Rim Country Coalition – Connecting Seniors in the Rim Country has met for several months. It is open to community members and representatives from organizations concerned about senior wellness. The coalition meets at 1 p.m. the fourth Friday of every month at the Payson Senior Center, 514 W. Main St., Payson.

Contact Carol Wilson at (520) 836-2758 or e-mail carolw@ pgcsc.org for more information about the coalition, its planned programs and regular meetings.

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