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Generic Drug Shortages Leave Patients in Limbo

Nationwide shortages of generic drugs continue to plague patients.  

More than 300 medications – an all-time high – are in shortage. Shortages are impacting all patients. For example, at least 10% of cancer patients have been impacted by a shortage of chemotherapy drugs, one study found.  

People whose prescribed medication isn’t available may reduce their dose, switch to a less effective medication or go without treatment. The disruption in continuity of care may cause patients to lose trust in the health care system. Confusion about medication changes can also contribute to medical errors.  

Shortages of medications for chronic illnesses are especially concerning, as doctors and patients cobble together a next-best treatment when a prescription cannot be filled.  

Why Supply Can’t Meet Demand 

In the United States, 90% of all prescriptions filled are for generic drugs, which are typically affordable for patients.  

The treatments are so affordable, in fact, that it’s a challenge to keep up with demand. These medications, some of them decades old, have very low margins. Out of financial necessity, manufacturers may devote resources instead to producing drugs with a higher return.  

Meanwhile, purchasing pharmacies view competing generics as interchangeable. That motivates them to opt for shorter contracts with suppliers and change suppliers more often, which discourages long-term investment in steady generic production.  

Supply chain disruptions add still more challenges.  

Congress and FDA Can Act to End Shortages 

Legislative or regulatory action is needed to decrease shortages and prevent them going forward. Steps might include:  

  • Examining the root causes of recurring and ongoing shortages 
  • Strengthening manufacturing incentives to grow production capacity and attract investment 
  • Mitigating regulatory and logistical hurdles that increase or prolong disruptions 
  • Developing long-term plans for manufacturing gaps or supply-chain interruptions    
  • Discerning national security or public health risks of an inadequate domestic drug supply 

Affordable, accessible and effective medications are key to patient health and continuity of care. Patients are looking to Washington to determine how to make generic drugs readily – and reliably – available once again.  

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