Rep. Sánchez looks at medicine shortage

A State House committee co-chaired by local state Rep. Jeffrey Sánchez examined prescription drug shortages at a Feb. 13 hearing.

“That came up from individual complaints—people saying there were on a cancer regimen and had to stop,” Sánchez told the Gazette.

The Joint Committee on Public Health is investigating the impact of drug shortages on patient care in Massachusetts. Within the last several years, drug shortages have greatly increased in frequency and severity, directly impacting patient safety in Massachusetts.

“There are even morphine shortages,” Sánchez said, referring to the commonly prescribed painkiller. He cited testimony that doctors and anesthesiologists at Children’s Hospital Boston have to brew their own child-sized doses of morphine from larger supplies because of shortages.

“This dire situation has evolved into a public health crisis that threatens our ability to not only provide routine and timely medical care to patients in need, but also to save the lives of people from what should be treatable and curable conditions,” Sánchez said in a press release. “Hospitals can’t get the drugs they need, doctors are being forced to alter or delay the course of treatment for their patients, and patients are left wondering if the drug they need to get well will be available for them.”

The committee learned that vast majority of drugs in shortage are commonly used generic drugs delivered to patients by sterile injections, including oncology drugs, antibiotics, anesthetics for surgery, drugs for emergency medicine and electrolyte and nutrition drugs. An American Hospital Association survey of its members found that within the first six months of 2011, 99 percent of hospitals experienced one or more drug shortages; nearly half of them hospitals reported shortages in more than 21 drugs. Thirty-five percent of hospitals reported adverse patient outcomes as a result of a drug shortage.

Betsy Garson Neisner, a patient advocate and a Stage III ovarian cancer patient, told the committee that she has seen benefits from the drug Doxil after three previous rounds of chemotherapy. Doxil has since gone into shortage, but as she was an existing patient, the manufacturer has allowed her continued access to the life-sustaining drug.

“I am in touch with women across the country with ovarian cancer, and ache at the frustration and sadness I hear,” she testified. “Science and industry created a successful drug, but industry let it disappear.”

The committee also heard testimony from several providers in Massachusetts, who detailed the difficulties in obtaining certain medications and the consequent effects shortages have on patient care. Providers also detailed the higher costs that are sustained when they are forced to replace unavailable generics with higher cost drugs.

The committee plans to release a report detailing the testimony provided at the oversight hearing as well as proposed solutions in the near future.

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