New evidence on the high incidence of preventable, often deadly drug errors in nursing homes raises serious implications for the new Medicare prescription drug benefit.

Each month, one in ten nursing home residents suffer a medication-related injury, according to a new study in the American Journal of Medicine. The lead author, Jerry H. Gurwitz, MD from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is a top expert on the safe use of drugs by seniors.

Extrapolating to the 1.6 million nursing home residents, the study suggests a staggering 1.9 million medication errors each year – including over 86,000 fatal or life-threatening mistakes. These scary new figures, still considered conservative, indicate the problem is five times worse than previously believed. To read the study, click here (PDF).

Under the new Medicare prescription drug benefit, most nursing home residents face dramatic changes to their drug benefits starting January 1, 2006. While some aspects of the Medicare drug benefit may ultimately help improve care, the highly complex Medicare program will likely exacerbate the problem of medication errors.

Some key factors to consider:

1. More restrictive formularies: The drug formularies offered by the Medicare drug plans will be far more restrictive than state Medicaid formularies. For many nursing home residents, this will mean changes to drug therapy regimens.

2. More complex drug management: It’s unlikely that all of a facility’s residents will be enrolled in the same drug plan. Therefore, nursing homes face the challenge of navigating multiple formularies and benefit procedures. In addition, the Medicare drug plans will likely force significant changes to nursing home?s long-established relationships with the specialty pharmacies that know and serve this market.

3. Misaligned financial incentives: Most Medicare beneficiaries in nursing homes will be enrolled in brand-new kind of creature, i.e., stand-alone drug plans that are at financial risk only for the drugs. This is in sharp contrast to health plans (HMOs, PPOs) which are at risk for all care and therefore have a built-in incentive to maintain a safe, therapeutically sound drug benefit to guard against hospitalizations and other more costly events. Because of the serious misalignment of incentives and the potential for cost-shifting and other gaming, no employer or Medicaid program would ever consider a similar at-risk carve out of drug benefits.