CHICAGO (CBS) — This year, 213 drugs – including many life-saving medications – have been very hard to get. At least 15 deaths nationwide are being blamed on the drug shortage.
The low supply is forcing some local hospitals to pay much more for the medicine they need and others to work together like never before to save lives.
“I thought the medicine was going to be there and then I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going to happen now?’” said Alison Curran.
The chemotherapy drug Curran needed to fight leukemia – Cytarabine – ran out halfway through her treatment. So the Massachusetts hospital where she was treated switched her to an alternative.
“That occasionally has led to dosing errors or inadequate management of side effects,” said Dr. Richard Schilsky, Chief of Hematology/Oncology at the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Schilsky says another option that doctors face is to tell cancer patients they have to wait to begin treatment. But waiting could mean the difference between life and death.
“For some of these cancers, the drug that’s been in short supply is absolutely essential to either life-saving or life-prolonging therapy,” Schilsky said.
Cancer drugs aren’t the only ones affected. Drugs to treat premature babies, pregnant women, people with infections or people who need surgery are also in short supply.
“Here at Rush, we’re managing a little over 80 drug shortages. A year ago we were managing a little over 30 drug shortages” said Kevin Colgan, Director of Pharmacy at Rush University Medical Center.
The worsening problem has fostered a unique partnership between Rush, Northwestern Memorial Hospital, NorthShore University Health System and the University of Chicago Hospitals to share medications.
“We will give our last drug to the other hospital if they have a patient,” Colgan said.
Some hospitals, however, have to pay more for the drugs they need.
Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood recently paid a third-party vendor $3.88 for a syringe of the pain reliever fentanyl, when it usually only paid 79 cents a vial. That’s 490% more.
But some price hikes are even more outrageous. A vial of the cancer drug Cytarabine is usually $12. One supplier is now charging nearly $1,000.
“I think, if it’s not criminal, it should be made a crime” said U.S. Rep Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland).
There’s a call now for drugmakers to be required to notify the U.S. Food and Drug Administration six months in advance if a shortage is likely.
“We already know it works from the FDA, when they have had early notification to be able to avert 99 drug shortages in the past year. We know this works,” said Colgan.
Alison Curran pleaded, “I want the drug to be there when we need it.”
What’s causing the delays? Quality control issues in factories have led to manufacturing delays and increased demand. Many companies simply stop making generics. There are also shortages of raw ingredients.
Congress has given drug suppliers until Oct. 19 to explain the huge markups. Those markups could end up impacting all of us with higher insurance premiums.