Health — 15 November 2012

By Richard Lenti

A chronic shortage of cancer drugs is having a severe impact on patients, forcing many to overpay for scarce drugs and delay getting treatment, according to a physicians group.

In a survey of 525 oncologists across the United States, nearly 99% reported experiencing a drug shortage in the last year. As a result of the shortages, doctors reported that cancer progressed more quickly in over 60% of their patients and more than 70% of the patients had more severe side effects as a result. Over half of the doctors said the shortage in cancer drugs was getting worse.

“The root cause of the drug shortage is economic,” said Ted Okon, executive director of Community Oncology Alliance (COA), a non-profit organization that conducted the study. “The Medicare system for reimbursing for cancer drugs has created pricing instability. That has resulted in disincentives for manufactures to produce these low-cost but vital generic cancer drugs, as well as to invest in manufacturing facilities for these products.”

Not only does the shortage often deny patients the best possible treatment, said one doctor, but it also results in many of them facing significantly higher costs.

“When treating ovarian cancer, a commonly used drug is leucovorin. The cost to Medicare is $35 per dose; the patient co-payment is $9. But leucovorin is a generic drug and in short supply,” said Dr. Patrick Cobb, an oncologist at the Frontier Cancer Centers and Blood Institute, Billings, Montana, and past president of the Community Oncology Alliance..

“The substitute is a branded drug that is readily available. The cost to Medicare for a dose of the branded drug is $2,000 and the cost to the patient is $520. This is an unacceptable consequence of the drug shortage crisis,” said Cobb.

The survey found that over 80% of the patients and over 90% of the oncology practices affected by the cancer drug shortage experienced an increased financial burden.

When asked to name which medications were the hardest to obtain, leucovorin topped the list. Leucovorin protects healthy cells from the harmful effects of chemotherapy, while allowing chemotherapy drugs to enter and kill cancer cells. It is also used to prevent or treat certain kinds of anemia.

The drugs Doxil and Adriamycin, which are used to treat ovarian cancer, are also in short supply. Oncologists say they delayed treatment for patients with ovarian cancer, as well as breast cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer and leukemia because of the drug shortages.

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About Author

Richard Lenti

Richard Lenti has worked as a news writer for the last 20 years at various television stations in Los Angeles. He is a Golden Mike winner and a graduate of California State University, Fresno. With roots in print journalism, Richard is excited to be “published” once again; having people read his work as opposed to having it read to them. As a freelance writer his work has appeared in the Easy Reader, L.A. Jazz Scene, Irrigation and Green Industry, and the KCAL 9 Online website.

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