FDA: Drug Shortages Caused by Drugmakers’ Low Profits

person pouring pills into hand with a downward trend arrow; drug shortages in US

According to a new report from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), drug shortages in the U.S. are due to low costs of older, generic drugs. In other words, drugmakers have pulled back on production of life-saving medications–one of which is used to treat cancer in children–because it won’t make the company enough money

The FDA report

The FDA created the Drug Shortages Task Force in 2018 to investigate shortages of high-demand, life-saving drugs, and come up with short- and long-term solutions. The task force reported shortages of 163 drugs between 2013 and 2017. 

Many of these drugs are used for:

  • Cancer in children
  • Anesthesia
  • Palliative care
  • Vaccines
  • Septic shock

Vincristine, a drug used to treat cancer in children, currently costs $8 per vial. With such a low price tag, Pfizer, sole drugmaker of vincristine, has pulled back on production because the company doesn’t profit off the drug. 

The University of Chicago survey

A separate survey by the University of Chicago also found alarming drug shortages, but blamed the problem on poor planning and lack of advanced notice from pharmaceutical companies. The survey was given to hospital pharmacy manager and pharmacy leaders (PPMs). Over 92 percent of PPMs received less than a month’s notice when drugs were running in short supply, and nearly 35 percent had no protocol in place to deal with shortages. 

The researchers recommended a long-term strategy of expanding the authority of the FDA, adjusting reimbursement practices, and incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to produce drugs in critically low supply. 

What the FDA can do

Yoram Unguru, pediatric oncologist with Baltimore’s Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital, said the FDA needs to intervene to rectify the situation, calling the shortages of life-saving drugs “ethically unjustifiable.” 

“The government has previously stepped into the marketplace to assist the ailing automotive industry, Wall Street, and the insurance companies,” he said. “Why not do the same for our ailing health care system, specifically the manner in which life-saving medications are manufactured and distributed?”

In dire cases, the FDA has the power to look to other countries to supply the drugs in highest demand. 


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