Two state legislators are pushing for improved transparency about how often Arizona’s foster-care children are prescribed powerful, mind-altering medications.
A pair of bills recently introduced in the Legislature would require three state agencies to collaborate on a report, to be issued every two years, comparing foster and non-foster kids’ prescription rates for psychotropic medications. The agencies are the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment system, the state’s Medicaid program; the Department of Health Services; and the Department of Child Safety, which oversees child welfare.
Both bills also require release of additional data, such as how often foster and non-foster children are simultaneously prescribed multiple psychotropic drugs, and a list of doctors who have the highest prescribing rates for that class of medications, which includes antidepressants, antipsychotics, anti-anxiety drugs, mood stabilizers and ADHD drugs.
The bills are scheduled to be heard in their respective committees on Wednesday, Feb. 15.
Senate Bill 1236‘s sponsor, Sen. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, introduced the same bill in 2015, which unanimously passed the Senate but was killed in a House committee.
“We’re trying it again,” she said on Friday. “This is a constituent-driven legislation. I have a constituent who is very passionate about it, and I think it’s a worthy issue.”
Rep. Anthony Kern, R-Glendale, last week introduced a similar bill, HB 2454, which would also mandate regular AHCCCS reports on psychotropic prescribing for kids in foster care. In addition, the bill requires approval from the Department of Child Safety before antipsychotic medication could be prescribed to a child under 5.
Lesko introduced the 2015 bill after trying unsuccessfully to push AHCCCS to update a 2012 report which found foster children were prescribed psychotropic medications at disproportionately high rates.
The 2012 report, which was based on 2008 data, found Arizona’s foster children — who are automatically enrolled in AHCCCS health insurance — were prescribed the drugs at 4.4 times the rate of children not in foster care.
After the Star reported last year on delays in the release of an updated report, Lesko asked the Governor’s Office to intervene. Gov. Doug Ducey then gave AHCCCS a deadline to produce a more-recent report, which the agency released in May 2016.
The new report found, while fewer foster children were taking psychotropic medications in 2014 compared with 2008, the disparity between foster and non-foster children prescribed five or more drugs simultaneously had worsened.
As the number of Arizona children in state custody has skyrocketed, advocates for foster children have warned about over-reliance on medications to treat issues stemming from trauma that could be better addressed with non-drug interventions, like therapy. Psychotropic drugs can be necessary, but they come with the risk of serious, lifetime side-effects.
“We just want to know what the numbers are so if the numbers show something we’re alarmed about, we can perhaps pursue a solution,” Lesko said.