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What’s Behind Prescription Drug Shortages?

The explosion of prescription drug shortages is plaguing hospitals and patients. What the heck is going on?

At hospitals across the country, "scoring drugs" has taken on a new meaning. Hundreds admit buying medicines at exorbitant prices from "gray market" dealers taking advantage of, and possibly exacerbating, a record shortage of life-saving prescription medicines. (AP)

At hospitals across the country, "scoring drugs" has taken on a new meaning. Hundreds admit buying medicines at exorbitant prices from "gray market" dealers taking advantage of, and possibly exacerbating, a record shortage of life-saving prescription medicines. (AP)

American health care may be ruinously expensive and leave millions out, but at least it’s the best in the world when you can get it, we’re told. But that now depends if you can get the drugs the doctor ordered.

The U.S. health care system is suffering a plague of shortages of prescription drugs. Cancer drugs, antibiotics, nutritional treatments. Not exotic drugs, but drugs you might need. That people need right now. Drugs that aren’t so profitable anymore, so somehow just don’t get made. Now people are desperate. We’ve got drug theft. A gray market.

This hour On Point: why the drug shortages?

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Jennifer Corbett-Dooren, Food and Drug Administration reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

Michael Link, President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Michael O’Neal, Pharmacist and Head of drug procurement at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Wells Wilkinson, staff Attorney with Community Catalyst, a national consumer advocacy organization advocating for a greater consumer voice in health.

Highlights

There are currently 213 drugs in short supply nationwide, according to government statistics. It’s the result of a complicated series of factors that have kept some of the most-needed drugs from the patients who most need them.

“These are very common drugs, chemotherapy drugs, anesthesia drugs, drugs used in critical care units,” said Wall Street Journal reporter Jennifer Corbett-Dooren. “These are typically not the drugs that would be in short supply at the pharmacy counter.”

Many of the drugs that are in short supply are generic drugs that have been on the market for decades, she said.

What is means for doctors is a reduced ability to treat the seriously ill. “These are drugs that have been the mainstays of curative cancer treatment,” said Michael Link, President of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. “We can now cure almost 80 percent of children with cancer. But without these drugs, our hands are tied.”

“This is really a crisis for us,” Link said.

Michael O’Neal, pharmacist and Head of drug procurement at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, agreed sand added that the shortage has been a long-term problem. “This is something that we’ve been dealing with for more than two years,” he said. “It has hit every corner of the hospital and it’s really created a lot of operational issues and safety concerns.”

Since many of the drug shortages stem from problems in factories overseas, some critics have called for greater government oversight. “We need to improve the FDA’s [Food and Drug Administration] overseas presence,” said Wells Wilkinson, staff Attorney with Community Catalyst, a national consumer advocacy organization advocating for a greater consumer voice in health. “40 percent of finished drug products come from overseas.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New York Times “Probably to their great disappointment, President Obama’s critics cannot blame this rationing on death panels or health care reform. Rather, it is caused by a severe shortage of important cancer drugs.”

NPR “Drug shortages mean a growing number of Americans aren’t getting the medications they need. That’s causing drug companies and doctors to ration available medications in some cases.”

Food And Drug Administration “Current Drug Shortages: The information provided in this section is provided voluntarily by manufacturers.”

Wall Street Journal “Cancer-drug shortages in the U.S. have caused hundreds of clinical trials to be stopped or delayed, threatening progress on new treatments, a top health official told Congress Friday.”

Here And Now “In the worst known case, Alabama’s public health department this spring reported nine deaths and 10 patients harmed due to bacterial contamination of a hand-mixed batch of liquid nutrition given via feeding tubes because the sterile pre-mixed liquid wasn’t available.”

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