Vocablets in the News: Price Gouging on Life-Saving Medicine

What’s the story behind the snippet?  Let’s take a closer look.

The Word:

When I saw this Vocablet, I knew I had to investigate further.  The idea that a hospital might not have the medicines it needs to treat patients or that the unreasonably high cost of medicine might prevent hospitals from being able to properly care for patients is unsettling, to say the least.

The whole story paints a troubling picture of health care in the United States, touching on the issues of relying on for-profit industries in life-and-death situations.

The Story:

Hospital Drug Shortages Prove Costly and Deadly (NPR, 24 Sept 2011)

Hospitals are facing a growing crisis in shortages of important drugs, including those for chemotherapy, pain management, and battling infection.

These shortages force hospitals to buy medicines from secondary vendors, most of which increase the price of these ordinarily inexpensive drugs by an average of 650 percent.  In one extreme case, a drug for high blood pressure that usually costs $25.90 was priced at $1,200.

The main causes of these shortages, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), are manufacturing problems, such as contamination.  Some companies have also stopped producing these drugs altogether because of their slim profit margins.

Companies are not required to alert the FDA when they choose to stop manufacturing drugs, which means that the FDA cannot know to start looking for new sources of a drug until a shortage has been reported.

Why It Matters:

The shortages have required hospitals to delay surgeries and cancer treatments, caused patients unnecessary pain, and forced hospitals to give less effective treatments.

If shortages continue, hospitals will no longer be able to absorb the costs, leaving insurers and patients to pick up the tab.

Drug shortages are affecting research, preventing scientists from working on clinical studies and developing new treatments.  These effects are long-term, and could seriously delay the advancement of medicine.

There are risks involved in buying from secondary vendors.  Hospitals can’t know if those drugs were stolen, if they were refrigerated properly, if they were manufactured properly and safely, or even if they are past the expiration date.

Legislation is pending to increase penalties for drug thefts from warehouses and to require companies to altert the FDA when they anticipate a shortage.  However, only three states currently have legislation against price-gouging medicines.

Meanwhile, drug shortages have directly caused at least 15 deaths, but many deaths and harmful side effects go unreported.

Making It Memorable:

What did YOU think when you saw this Vocablet?  Do you have any thoughts or stories about drug shortages or other problems with healthcare in the U.S.?  How is this Vocablet and its story memorable to you?

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