A severe shortage of drugs for chemotherapy, infections and other serious conditions is endangering patients and forcing hospitals to buy medications from secondary suppliers at extreme markups because they cannot obtain the medications any other away.
An investigation by the Associated Press revealed there have been at least 15 deaths in the past 15 months as a result of prescription drug shortages. The patients died either because they were unable to obtain the life-saving drugs they needed, or due to dosing errors or other problems resulting from administering or preparing an alternative medication.
In addition to threatening lives, the shortages have delayed surgeries and cancer treatments and have left many patients in unnecessary pain as doctors attempt to aid them with less effective treatments, according to the AP. The growing shortage is mainly of injected generic drugs that are usually inexpensive, but which have become scarce due to production shutdowns and manufacturing problems, such as contamination, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Theft of prescription drugs from warehouses or during shipment have also added to the shortages, as well as gray market vendors who buy such medications from small wholesalers or pharmacies and then sell them to hospitals at inflated prices.
On Monday, the FDA is scheduled to hold a meeting with medical and consumer groups, researchers and industry representatives to discuss the drug shortages and find strategies to fight them.
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In a survey this summer by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, a patient safety group, just over half of the 549 U.S. hospitals that responded said they had purchased one or more prescription drugs from gray market vendors. Most of the respondents said they have had to rely on these third-party acquisitions since a handful of pharmaceutical companies have stopped manufacturing the required medications.
Many companies have stopped making generic drugs because they are not profitable, the FDA reports. Moreover, companies are not required to notify customers or the FDA when they halt production on a medication, leaving no leeway for the FDA or other pharmaceutical companies to fill the gap before a shortage occurs.
Only about six companies make a majority of the generic injected drugs on the market. Drug manufacturers are often discouraged from making such medications because of the extensive and costly process of setting up new manufacturing lines and receiving FDA approval.
So far, 210 drugs have been added to the list of those in short supply, compared to roughly 70 per year from 2003 to 2006, according to the University of Utah Drug Information Service.
The shortages aren't resolving. They're piling up on top of existing ones, Erin Fox, a pharmacist who manages the Drug Information Service, told the AP.
Fox added that at least 55 drugs that were on the shortage list before this year are still either scarce or completely unavailable.
At a hearing before the Health Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last week, hospital officials and physicians said the drug shortages are driving up costs and preventing hospitals from providing satisfactory care to some patients.
Considering the nation's budget crisis and our skyrocketing health care bill, these markups are nothing more than profiteering at the expense of patients and providers who are struggling to afford vital medicines, said Mike Alkire, the chief operating officer of Premier Healthcare Alliance.
Alkire said drug shortages could cost hospitals up to $415 million a year. While many hospitals have been able to absorb the extra costs at this point, the American Hospital Association reports that soon they may have to pass on those extra expenses to health insurers and patients.