TOPICS > Health

For Some Patients, Drug Shortage Creates Life-and-Death Situation

October 31, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Across the country, doctors and patients are struggling to get their hands on some essential prescription drugs that are in dangerously short supply. Health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reports on President Obama's idea for tackling part of the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the growing concerns surrounding drug shortages and the president’s idea for tackling a part of the problem.

NewsHour health correspondent Betty Ann Bowser reported on the worries earlier this year, and she has our update.

WOMAN: In the next few days, it should be high enough for us to do the bone marrow.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Across the country, doctors and patients are struggling to get their hands on some essential prescription drugs in dangerously short supply.

The list includes 178 drugs, antibiotics, chemotherapy drugs used to kill cancers, and medicines that save lives in the emergency room.

Today, President Obama signed an executive order giving the Food and Drug Administration more tools to police the problem.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As part of this, we’re going to require that drug companies let us know earlier about the potential for drug shortages, so that we can respond successfully. We’re going to make sure that, if we find out that prices are being driven up because shortages are being made worse by manipulations of companies or distributors, that we are making sure that we stop those practices.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The president also gave FDA and the Department of Justice more power to investigate the so-called gray market, where unscrupulous suppliers buy up drugs in short supply and then charge exorbitant prices.

Most of the medicines in question are older generic products that are not significantly profitable. A number of companies have dropped out of production, and some still making them have run into manufacturing problems.

That’s left patients like Bruce Blair having to make difficult choices. He got one round of a preferred drug earlier this year, and then had to go to plan B when no more of it could be found.

BRUCE BLAIR, patient: There was actually some concerns as to what’s going on.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Whether it was working.

BRUCE BLAIR: Whether it was working. And, actually, the other concern that we were told is maybe the cancer is back. When you’re going through this, that’s kind of the last thing that you actually want to hear, is that maybe the cancer is back. And it really — for that two-week period, it really kind of puts you a little bit on edge.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although Blair’s doctors successfully treated him, it could have had a different outcome.

Are we talking about drugs that literally create a life-and-death situation sometimes?

CAPT. VALERIE JENSEN, Food and Drug Administration: Absolutely.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Captain Valerie Jensen tracks shortages for the FDA. We talked to her earlier this summer.

Is this unprecedented?

CAPT. VALERIE JENSEN: It is. When we look back at the last six years, since we have tracked shortages, we have not seen these levels. We have not seen anything near these levels.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Jensen told us that economics played a clear role in the problem.

CAPT. VALERIE JENSEN: These are not profitable drugs. So, as newer drugs come off patent, often, those are picked up by firms. And they want to make those drugs because they are more profitable. And these older sterile injectables can get discontinued for that reason.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The Generic Pharmaceutical Association released a statement pledging to work with “all stakeholders to ensure that lifesaving generic medications are available for all patients who rely on them.”

The president’s action was the latest in a series of executive orders taken to circumvent the Congress, which has refused to pass Mr. Obama’s jobs bill and other legislation.

The president also said he supports a proposed bill that would require drugmakers to notify the FDA six months before a potential shortage.

BARACK OBAMA: We will still be calling on Congress to pass a bipartisan bill that will provide additional tools to the FDA and others that can make a difference. But, until they act, we will go ahead and move.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Today’s order is just the beginning of a process that could take months before patients are able to get the drugs they need. Moreover, it may not solve some of the fundamental business problems that led to the shortages in the first place.