Hard Talk

Should we defend the unrestrained availability of patented psychotropics?


Since the biological revolution in psychiatry, with the introduction of chlorpromazine in the 1950s,1 psychiatrists have been introduced to the economic questions inherent in the tension between funding psychotropic medications for the treatment of mental illness versus funding psychosocial interventions. Of course, our natural inclination is to advocate for all available treatments for our patients, but the economic realities of medical care – especially government-subsidized or regulated medical care – force us to weigh the relative advantages of these treatments and to promote our patients’ interests with a wise allocation of limited resources.

Dr. David Lehman, associate professor of psychiatry, University of California, San Diego

Dr. David Lehman

It has become common practice for the American Psychiatric Association to advocate for additional funds for both research into mental illness as well as treatment. The promotion of mental health parity and the demonization of prior authorizations are examples of our natural priorities in the debates over funding for medical care. A bias has played out in the national conversation about medical care in general regarding the right to said care, but economists understand that medical care is a limited resource and, as such, treating it as a “right,” per se, does not make sense: One has to make hard decisions about its allocation or simply leave it to the free market to make said decisions.

Recently, the government has proposed to eliminate certain psychotropic medications from their protected status within Medicare Part D. Those medications include all drugs labeled as antidepressants, antipsychotics, and anticonvulsants. As expected, the APA’s medical director has written a formal statement opposing the proposal. His statement includes warnings about suicides and overwhelmed emergency departments. He compared the mental health situation in the United States to a crisis. He described the availability of expensive and new psychotropics to be “lifesaving.”2

The goals of the APA and its leaders are honorable. We are inspired by the dedication that some psychiatrists have to advocate for us all as well as for our patients. However, we are concerned that unfounded claims are being made. We are even more troubled when those claims promote the interests of a fallible pharmaceutical industry, an industry that has opened up our field to extensive critical scrutiny over the past few years. We wonder whether a brief examination of the scientific evidence warrants the statements made by the APA.

After reviewing clinical textbooks and search engines, we were not able to find reliable and convincing evidence that newer psychotropics reduce emergency department stays or that lengths of stay in the hospital correlate with the use of newer agents. We have actually not even heard of that claim made before in any serious forum. Reviews of predictors of length of stay in psychiatric hospitals have typically included demographic factors, diagnostic factors, logistical factors such as time of day, and social factors, such as insurance status and homelessness.3,4 We found no review mentioning the use of patented drugs as a predictor of shorter stays.

At a larger level, we are unsure that the newer psychotropics are particularly better than older ones. The Food and Drug Administration approves psychiatric medications based on superiority to placebo and not superiority to existing – and usually much cheaper – medications. Our subscription to Epocrates informs us that a 1-month supply of once-a-day brand-name Abilify, Invega, or Latuda is more than $1,000.5 Alternatively, a 1-month supply of generic olanzapine, risperidone, or quetiapine is available for $4 at Walmart.6 As famously described in the CATIE trial7 of patients with schizophrenia, newer antipsychotics are not particularly better than older ones. In addition, a more recent meta-analysis8 did not find significant differences among antipsychotics’ efficacy.

Dr. Nicolas Badre is a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego.

Dr. Nicolas Badre

A similar analysis can be made of antidepressants without addressing debates surrounding the effectiveness of antidepressants as a class and the value of psychological interventions over chemical ones. Reviews of the literature do not suggest that newer antidepressants are more effective than older ones. A recent meta-analysis of antidepressant efficacy did not find significant differences among antidepressants and, when looking at trends, amitriptyline, a much older antidepressant, was most effective.9

The most surprising part of the APA medical director’s statement was the claim of reduced suicidality. While lithium and clozapine have some evidence for reducing the risk of suicide, the evidence that antidepressants reduce suicide is equivocal. Quite the contrary, some evidence exists that antidepressants may increase the risk of suicide,10 and we are not aware of evidence suggesting that any newer agents can reduce suicide at any higher rate. One psychiatrist has even made a career out of testifying that antidepressants increase impulsivity and suicide.11

We are not politicians, and we trust the APA to have good intentions with a desire to help patients suffering from mental illness. We understand the need to advocate for any measure that provides additional resources for the treatment of mental illness. We have no doubt that a publicly funded and appropriately regulated mental health system is a wise goal from both an ethical as well as a societal perspective. The APA has an imperative to advocate for our patients with the goal to improve our society.

However, we are concerned when our field makes unfounded claims. Advocating that insurance companies and the government provide most psychotropics without prior authorization and without discrimination does not appear to be based on scientific evidence and has serious economic implications that are not being weighed in a transparent manner. Whatever funding levels the APA recommends for the treatment of mental illness, said treatments will remain a limited resource, and then it becomes a question not just of ethics but of economics. What combination of resources produce the most benefit for the most people in question? Would the increased cost of a newer psychotropic be better spent on a system with more elaborate psychosocial interventions? In making this argument, does one risk repeating the historical blunder made when, in the 1960s, long-term psychiatric hospitals were closed with the intention of replacing their costs with outpatient treatments that then never materialized?

A review of the literature does not support the claim that newer psychotropic agents are more effective from either a clinical or an economic perspective. Cost-saving measures are ethical and possibly beneficial if they permit a more justifiable allocation of resources.

Dr. Lehman is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Diego. He is codirector of all acute and intensive psychiatric treatment at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Diego, where he practices clinical psychiatry. He is also the course director for the UCSD third-year medical student psychiatry clerkship. Dr. Badre is a forensic psychiatrist in San Diego and an expert in correctional mental health. He holds teaching positions at the University of California, San Diego, and the University of San Diego. Among his writings is Chapter 7 in the new book “Critical Psychiatry: Controversies and Clinical Implications” (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019).


Next Article: