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Prescription Drug Shortage Hits U.S. Doctors and Hospitals

President directs FDA to be more involved

President Obama today issued an executive order aimed at alleviating the critical shortage of lifesaving drugs that is threatening hospital care, delaying patient treatment and limiting the medicines doctors can prescribe or the anesthetics they can use to perform surgery.

See also: Have a medication question? Ask the Pharmacist.

The order directs the Food and Drug Administration to broaden its reporting of certain prescription drugs and to speed up regulatory reviews that can help prevent or respond to shortages, the White House announced. It also requires the FDA to work with the Department of Justice to investigate possible instances of illegal price gouging or stockpiling of medications.

In recent months, several pharmaceutical giants have warned doctors not to start patients on some medicines because they can't guarantee a steady supply, and hospitals have begun rationing some vital drugs. The FDA had reports of 180 drug shortages as of July 31, a number that already surpasses the record 178 shortages reported for all of last year.

"The shortage of prescription drugs drives up costs, leaves consumers vulnerable to price gouging and threatens our health and safety," Obama said. "This is a problem we can't wait to fix."  The executive order bypasses Congress, where legislation to address the shortages has been debated since February. But, the president added, "I'm committed to working with Congress and industry to keep tackling this problem going forward."

The ever-increasing shortages particularly affect older Americans because they undergo more surgeries and cancer treatments, doctors say. They also are more likely to have medical conditions that can make it difficult to find a suitable substitute when the drug they need is unavailable.

Recent surveys by hospital and pharmacist groups tell the troubling story.

A national survey by the American Hospital Association in June found that 99.5 percent of hospitals have experienced one or more drug shortages in the last six months. Nearly half of the 820 representative hospitals contacted — 44 percent — reported shortages of more than 21 drugs. Moreover, 63 percent of the hospitals reported that in some cases, patients didn't receive the recommended treatment; 10 percent said that problem occurred frequently.

Next: Drug shortages by condition. >>

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