Photo courtesy of NC Health News

By Thomas Goldsmith, North Carolina Health News

Surf City police and Pender County sheriff’s deputies were ready to move when Salvatore Corradengo, 48, walked into Realo Pharmacy in late February with a prescription for Oxycodone, the powerful opioid.

Law enforcement knew that Corradengo had obtained a power of attorney for an older man he had befriended in Sneads Ferry, a short drive north. Tipped off by the pharmacy, officers watched as Corradengo left with the old man’s opioids, got into a car, and started splitting them with Garrett Fayne, 21, according to police.

“This guy is going down to Surf City, picking up these opioid prescriptions, and not giving them to the older gentleman,” said Ron Shanahan, Surf City police chief. “He was targeting the older gentleman.”

The arrest of the suspected drug dealers makes clear one piece of the burden that North Carolina’s punishing opioid epidemic is putting on many older residents, their families, law enforcement, social services and other parts of society.

In fact, the effects go beyond the theft and fraud perpetrated on older people. In some cases, cash-strapped older people are selling their own painkiller prescriptions to finance late-life existence, law enforcement officials say.

Donnie Varnell, an investigator in the Dare County Sheriff’s Department, gave the example of a fisherman who may have worked all his life on the boats, with no pension, no retiree health insurance and, perhaps, a minimal Social Security check.

“There are different reasons people will sell their prescriptions,” Varnell said. “If you are having a hard time making it, if you can make even $200 selling your pills, that’s extra cash.”

‘It’s pretty awful’

Overall, the number of crimes affecting older people through the opioid epidemic isn’t fully known. But those who work with seniors say the crimes can include financial fraud and the theft of drugs, in settings that include long-term care centers.

“We’ve been urging older adults to lock up their medicines,” said Mary Warren, director of the Triangle J Area Agency on Aging, one of North Carolina’s 16 such agencies. “The person who’s likely to help herself to your prescription could be your granddaughter or your caregiver.”

Said Joan Pellettier, head of the North Carolina Partnership to Address Adult Abuse: “If their family member is addicted, it can be direct thievery, or the older adult feeling compelled to give the family member money. It’s pretty awful.”

The trend led to a Feb. 21 meeting in Surf City, about 35 miles up the coast from Wilmington, which has a significant opioid abuse problem that was described in a 2016 report.

Called “In the Eye of the Storm: How Elder Abuse, Fraud and Exploitation are Fueled by the Opioid Epidemic,” the event brought together more than 100 people including law enforcement, prosecutors, addiction specialists, social workers and specialists in geriatrics. Shanahan told the crowd about the Sneads Ferry resident’s situation.

“We were trying to give people food for thought: What are the safeguards you could put in place?” said Jane Jones, director of the Cape Fear Area Agency on Aging. “We have a multi-disciplinary team, trying to look at how we can better prevent this.”

Topics at the Surf City meeting included a definition for elder abuse, drug safety, fraud and scams, Medicare fraud, the use of powers of attorney in preventing exploitation, and dealing with the stigma of drug use.

The response from attendees was so positive that Jones and others are planning another round of presentations on April 19 in Brunswick County, with Secretary of State Elaine Marshall as a featured speaker.

Lock Your Meds

Also at the state level, the Department of Health and Human Services has responded to the misuse of prescription medication with the Lock Your Meds campaign, which is funded by a federal grant.

“She gets her hair from her dad, her eyes from her mom, and her drugs from her grandma’s purse,” says a heart-tugging Internet promo accompanied by a photo of a young woman.

The promo also offers hard information: Family members and friends are the sources for two-thirds of people abusing prescription meds. How does that play out in households from Manteo to Murphy?

“We have a steady diet of people reporting their medication stolen,” said Varnell, in Dare County, who’s retired from the State Bureau of Investigation. “A good bit of those reports are normally not exactly theft, but they’ve sold their pills, or friends have stolen their medication.”

According to widely reported trends, a new generation of older people may be crunched for cash because they never returned to pre-recession salaries, lack a defined benefit pension, or for whatever reason have low incomes in retirement. That reality doesn’t stop younger family members from stealing from them.

“At the local level, we see accounts of people using family members’ checks and they’ll write checks to the people they are getting prescriptions from,” Varnell said. “At the state level, we saw incidences where people were using other people’s medical cards to get prescriptions.”

Treatment scams

Even those younger addicts who would like to get into treatment could fall victim to an insidious practice known as “patient brokering,” defined by the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers as “an illegal act where a patient, or a lead relating to a prospective patient, is traded to a treatment provider in exchange for money and/or perks.”

An older relative can wind up shouldering the cost of this ineffective treatment. Louise Vincent, a harm-reduction wellness coach who lives in the Triad, has taken on patient brokering as a cause through the Piedmont Urban Survivors Union.

“That is when people they go out and they actively seek people for these treatment programs, they then negotiate some kind of deal,” Vincent said. “They tell them that it’s a sponsorship or a scholarship and they fly them over to California or Florida.

“Once you get underneath it, the places they are sending people are not what they claim to be; they are not protecting these young people.”

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee held hearings on Feb. 28 on the issue of patient brokering.

“Sadly, recent reports indicate that individuals known as ‘patient brokers’ are treating individuals seeking treatment for their opioid addiction as a commodity, rather than helping them receive legitimate treatment and ultimately achieve recovery,” the committee announced in a news release.

In all the heartbreaking scenarios above, older people often wind up as victims. Dealers and scam artists know that older people are likely to have prescriptions and money. People with dementia are easier to deceive or rob.

Some older people themselves become addicted to pain meds. And doctors are less likely to press an older person about his or her need for the drugs.

Julie Wiggins, of Boone, who heads up the High Country Area Agency on Aging in western North Carolina, said the issues tying into opioids range far and wide for older people.

“Often times they are in positions where they are choosing between food and oil, and selling their meds,” she said. “Another thing that happens that they don’t even think of as a problem: you hear about people trading medication with their neighbors.

“They don’t have any idea that it’s highly illegal. They’ll say, ‘Oh, sure, it calms my nerves, have some of these.’”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published March 5, 2018, and appears here by arrangement with North Carolina Health News.

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