HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Missing Care, Missing Drugs: Canaries in the Medical Coal Mine

While Washington has been focusing on repealing or rolling back parts of the Affordable Care Act, persistent embarrassments of the American health system show how untenable the status quo is. Both lower and middle class families are facing serious problems as they contend with providers' and insurers' cost constraints. I'll first address the familiar issue of health disparities. According to a recent news report, Lauren E. Wisk of the School of Medicine and Public Health at University of Wisconsin, Madison "examined data from the 2001-2006 Medical Expenditure Panel Surveys on 6,273 families with at least one child." Wisk's study shows that excessive financial burdens from cost-sharing are keeping many children from getting the care they need:

Families aren't choosing to spend their money on going to the doctor when someone is sick because of how much it cost them to see the doctor last time. They're sacrificing their health because it costs too much to be healthy. . . . We expect that if people aren't getting the care they need, they'll be sicker as a result. When you put this all together and look at the big picture, the cost of health care in the U.S. could actually be causing Americans to be sicker.

We might wonder: how can this be? Isn't the economy in recovery? But we've seen this picture before, in the developing world. Growth does not help everyone. India, for example, has had astonishing economic growth, but it "is home to about a third of the world's underweight and stunted children under the age of 5," and "the impressive economic growth of the past decade has made only a modest dent into the obstinately high incidence of severe underweight and stunting of children in the country." As Amartya Sen has shown, not only China, but also Bangladesh, are ahead of India in reducing the number of underweight children, despite the fact that "GNP per capita of $1,170" in India, "compared with $590 in Bangladesh." The critical number really is median GNP, and beyond that, real allocation to the sectors and concerns that matter. As the US surpasses Ivory Coast and Pakistan in inequality, don't count on gains from growth to go to the people who need it.

It's not just poor patients who need to worry about misplaced priorities in the health care system. We are increasingly seeing shortages of important drugs in the US. (Apparently this issue first caught mass media attention when prisons had a difficult time finding a key barbiturate used in executions.) Given that Congress is busy planning to cut funding for the statistical abstracts of the US and energy research (adding to prior DOJ cuts to studies of industrial concentration in the US), we shouldn't be surprised to learn that "no one is systematically tracking the toll of the shortages." Not many journalists are left to report on the government's failure to report, either. But the head of FDA’s Drug Shortages Program is worried: “This is affecting oncology drugs, critical-care drugs, emergency medicine drugs."

It turns out that much-ballyhooed globalization has some downsides, too:

“We’ve certainly reached a very global supply chain for drug products, with the active ingredients typically made outside of the United States,” said [a] vice president for regulatory sciences at the Generic Pharmaceutical Association. “It could be Europe, India — some cases China. If there’s a problem at a facility in Italy or India, it leads to disruption of the drug supply in the United States.”

And a whole new triage system has developed to address an entirely avoidable crisis:

“We have heard some horror stories where patients are really begging to get the drugs from other sources and where practices or institutions are forced to kind of triage patients and save the drugs for those — quote — most curable, where they have the best prognosis and using substitutes where there isn’t a cure possibility,” [said the] president-elect of the American Society of Clinical Oncology.

A moving piece by Hagop M. Kantarjian describes the dilemmas facing some leukemia doctors:

Recently I sent out a plea on this national crisis to 8,000 oncologists who subscribe to a monthly e-mail newsletter published by the leukemia department at the MD Anderson Cancer Center. Within 12 hours, my in-box was jammed with replies from doctors in more than 25 states, each with his or her own horror story. . . . Take, for example, the 43-year-old Kentucky father who got a substandard dose of cytarabine because his doctor used all the doses he could find but still didn’t have enough. “I don’t know what I’ll do next,” the doctor told me.
Or the 45-year-old retired Air Force lieutenant colonel from Colorado, father of an incoming Air Force Academy cadet, whose leukemia came back after six months. His doctor looked all over the state for cytarabine with no luck and so was forced to give his patient second-line therapy. Or the 15-year-old boy from Florida who is in remission but can’t get the therapy that will cure him.

I see two takeaways from this sad situation. First, the next time someone says that generic "health care costs" are too high, consider whether they really mean we need to reallocate funds from less productive sectors to this, life-threatening crisis. Second, we need to reconsider the wisdom and necessity of far-flung, fragile supply chains for critical products. Barry Lynn has been making this point for some time. His book Cornered argues that "the drive to reduce costs has led to several competing manufacturers relying on a single overseas supplier for certain components and that this makes the whole system vulnerable to an event like an earthquake, a strike, or a war that might put the single supplier temporarily out of business." Even for those skeptical of Lynn's thesis in, say, the automotive or computer sector, his warnings should be salient for the food and health care industries. Too many lives have been put at risk by supply chains that are not robust enough to handle predictable challenges.


X-Posted: Health Reform Watch.

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