skip to main content









Donation Heart Ribbon

Wave Of Seniors With Substance Abuse Problems Enter Medicare


Aired 1/20/11

One in 10 seniors is a heavy drinker. For most alcoholics, the problem starts in their early 20s, and by their 60s, alcohol has taken its toll. That could have implications for Medicare, as millions of baby boomers enter the system.

— One in 10 seniors is a heavy drinker. For most alcoholics, the problem starts in their early 20s. By the time they reach their 60s, alcohol has taken its toll. That could have implications for Medicare, as millions of baby boomers enter the system.

Pete, who doesn’t want to reveal his last name, has been an alcoholic for mor...
Enlarge this image

Above: Pete, who doesn’t want to reveal his last name, has been an alcoholic for more than 40 years. He has arthritis, high blood pressure, and recently had quadruple bypass surgery. He’s in recovery, and hopes he can improve his health over the next few years.

After decades of heavy drinking, Pete, who asked us not to use his last name, is trying to kick the habit.

He's living in Escondido at Fellowship Center. It's a residential recovery program that incorporates counseling and 12-step meetings.

Pete is 64. He's been drinking on and off for 45 years. He used to put away a quart and a half of gin a day.

"Yeah, in my 20s and 30s and even my 40s, I thought I was indestructible," Pete said. "I thought I could drink and I thought I could work. And the years took its toll and the alcohol took its toll."

Pete lost a job he held for decades, and his marriage crumbled.

He has arthritis, high cholesterol, and struggles to keep his blood pressure under control. He recently had quadruple bypass surgery.

Pete said he's paid a heavy price for being an alcoholic.

"It's affected obviously my health, my relationships, my whole life," he lamented.

Later this year, Pete will enter the Medicare system. So will more than three-and-a-half million other baby boomers.

Statistically, more than 350,000 of these people are alcoholics. Some abuse other drugs, too. So what does that mean for the Medicare system?

Medicare pays for a host of services for people with substance abuse problems, including in-patient treatment, and care in a clinic.

The government says it doesn't track the number of seniors who get help for these problems. It also can't provide the amount Medicare spends on addiction-related care.

But here's what we do know.

In 2008, Medicare spent $109 billion on in-patient hospital care. Researchers say about one percent of all Medicare hospitalizations are for alcohol-related diagnoses.

So that means in 2008, Medicare spent more than $1 billion on hospital treatment for people with a drinking problem.

That doesn't tell the whole story, said Dr. Michael Plopper, chief medical officer of San Diego's Sharp Behavioral Health.

"We also see so many other issues associated with alcohol, and medical costs associated with alcohol abuse," Plopper pointed out. "For example, cirrhosis of the liver, gastrointestinal bleeding."

Plopper oversees substance abuse and mental health treatment at three hospitals. He said some seniors abuse multiple drugs.

"With older people," Plopper said, "it's become much more common in the last 10 to 15 years for people to become habituated to opiates, particularly OxyContin. So we see complex addictions, of alcohol plus opiates, of other drugs. Cocaine use is increasing among the boomers and early seniors."

Dr. Marc Schuckit is former director of the alcohol and drug program for San Diego's VA Medical System. He said recovery is tough at any age. But seniors face additional challenges.

"Greater likelihood you'll be divorced, greater likelihood you might be estranged from your children," Schuckit said. "You might indeed be quite successful in life, but your support group may be a little bit more compressed. And it means that when you come into treatment, there may not be as many people out there who can help you as you go through your recovery."

As Pete continues his recovery, he's feels fortunate: his kids are back in his life. And he doesn't think he'll fall off the wagon.

"Well, hopefully, today as I stand before you, I hopefully will not have that problem," Pete said. "And what I need to do is to stay around AA and the program and the people, so I do stay healthy."

Federal researchers predict by 2020, there will be nearly four-and-a-half million older substance abusers.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.


Avatar for user 'Mike808'

Mike808 | January 20, 2011 at 10:10 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

Isn't America great? Just party and make all the wrong choices for a lifetime and then rely on the government and my taxes to pay for someone else's lifetime of mistakes.

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'zyaya'

zyaya | January 20, 2011 at 10:28 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

My husband who is now nearly 60 went into rehab several years ago due to prescription drugs and alcohol abuse and he managed to stay clean for 5 years. Then a new psychiatrist prescribed an addictive pain medicine for his chronic head aches. He had to go back into rehab and fight the addictions all over again. Only it has been worse the second time around and he nearly died.
My husband made it clear to this psychiatrist that he had addiction problems but the psychiatrist told him that the amount he was prescribing would not cause any problems.
I don't understand, do these doctors not know the dangers?
Are they getting kick-backs from the pharmaceutical companies for prescribing these drugs?
I am very angry about the pain this has caused us. Several years of fighting to get clean again and hospital emergency's and on and on. Do we have any legal recourse we can take against this doctor?

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'opeljoe'

opeljoe | January 20, 2011 at 11:40 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

I am amazed to see so many in my age group ( 55 & up ) who have been lifelong heavy drinkers. Some of them are now having serious, life threatening health events with no steady income or savings to fall back on yet they continue drinking themselves into oblivion on cheap beer. Substance abuse starts early ( high school ) and if it continues thru your 20's and into your 30's you are basically a "Lifer". Some of these 911 Responders in N.Y. screaming they've been "incapacitated" look & act like lifelong boozers to me.....especially Cops & Firemen

( | suggest removal )

Avatar for user 'jo'

jo | January 21, 2011 at 9:35 a.m. ― 6 years, 2 months ago

I feel, as a substance abuse counselor that I must respond to Mike808. Would you deny funding of the treatment of those who suffer from Diabetes, High Blood Pressure, COPD, etc.? Those who suffer from substance abuse/alcohol dependency suffer from a brain disease, and anyone with a brain is susceptible to the disease. Yes, I suppose the mistake would be trying alcohol in the first place because it is not always a clear cut prediction of whose casual use may develop into a full blown, life altering addiction. It's often a crap shoot. So their mistake is the mistake of the overwhelming majority of isn't alcoholics that keep the beer and liquor companies in business.

( | suggest removal )