Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA)
Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA). Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A congressional hearing and a new report issued by a government watchdog show that older adults need more help accessing care for substance use disorders, finding providers willing to treat them and getting required services covered.

Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA), chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, noted that almost 4 million older adults reported having a substance use disorder in 2022, with 1.8 million of those involving drug use. Mortality from drug overdoses among older adults also more than tripled between 2000 and 2022, he added, citing federal data. 

“Older adults are not immune to these issues, and this a growing and evolving crisis in America,” Casey said in opening the recent hearing of the committee, which focused both on access to opioids and gaps in care. 

“Older adults tend to be overlooked for substance use disorders in typical screenings and prevention efforts, even though they are more susceptible to developing substance use disorders than other age groups and at a higher risk of undiagnosed and untreated substance use disorders,” he added. “The people, the problems and the solutions remain largely invisible to our society.”

Long-term care facilities increasingly are being called on to treat patients who have substance use disorders.

The recent hearing coincided with the publication of an annual brief from the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General that examines access to treatment for opioid use disorder and the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

It found that about 52,000 Medicare enrollees experienced an opioid overdose in 2022. Of the 1.1 million enrollees who have opioid use disorder, just 18% received medication to treat that disorder. In some states, the OIG found far lower access. Florida was the worst, with just 6% receiving treatment medication.

Although naloxone has been an important tool in addressing the nation’s opioid crisis — one Senate witness credited it with “saving countless Americans from death” — it became an over-the-counter medication last year.