A massive shortage of drugs is threatening the lives of patients across the United States. This year, 213 drugs are in short supply and doctors are forced to ration them. Drug rationing? Sounds like something a developing country might struggle with. But here in the United States it's not even a new thing. Last year there were 211 scarce drugs, and patients have died as a result.
Stories of patients losing their battles with disease have been bubbling to the surface for weeks. US ABC told the story of Brigham Robust, who waited for weeks for a chemotherapy drug to treat his lymphoma. When he finally underwent treatment, it was too late. He lost his battle with cancer in September.
NPR reported today on a mother who administers an intravenous drip to her 15-year-old son daily because it's the only way he can get nutrients. "A year ago, his small intestine suddenly kinked, cutting off its blood supply. Surgeons had to remove the entire small bowel." Recently, his pharmacy ran out of calcium gluconate, which is vital for teeth and bones. But the nutrient has been rationed to patients who need it even more than him: premature infants in critical care.
Why is the US experiencing a drug shortage? It's mostly a problem for injected drugs, which present unique manufacturing problems. Only about six companies make them. They can become contaminated relatively easily, which often prompts the companies to abandon production. Profit margins are slim. Injectables are harder to produce and take longer to make than pills. Also, there's no regulation forcing drug makers to report manufacturing issues that might lead to shortages.
That's why Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar introduced the Preserving Access to Life-Saving Medications Act, which would require drug makers to tell the FDA about potential shortages six months in advance. The FDA could penalise companies $US10,000 a day for unreported violations, with penalties capped at $US1.8 million. In February, the Senate referred the bill to the Committee on Health, Education, Labour and Pensions — which kind of has a lot on its plate at the moment.
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