08/26/2011 - A widespread shortage of prescription drugs is hampering the treatment of patients who have cancer, severe infections and other serious illnesses. While some Republican politicians have railed against the imaginary threat of rationing under health care reform, Congress has done nothing to alleviate the all-too-real rationing of lifesaving drugs caused by this crisis.
Although there is limited data on how many patients have been harmed, a survey of 1,800 health care practitioners last year by the Institute for Safe Medication Practices found that a third of the physicians and a fifth of the pharmacists knew of adverse patient outcomes because of shortages, including some deaths from microbes resistant to the backup drugs. Cancer patients receiving less effective drugs may well face increased risks in the future.
Nobody is sure just what is causing the shortages because drug manufacturers are not required to report any reasons to the F.D.A. But several factors are likely to be involved: contamination problems at some manufacturing plants, forcing unexpected production shutdowns; difficulties in getting pharmaceutical ingredients from suppliers, especially those abroad; reluctance to invest in production-line improvement for low-profit generics when high-priced brand-name drugs bring in far higher profits. Sweeping consolidation in the generic drug industry means that fewer companies are left in that market to make up for a shortage.
Read the full editorial The Shortage of Vital Drugs on the New York Times' Web site.