I-Team Investigation

Extreme drug shortage

CREATED Nov 20, 2012

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  • Video by wtmj.com


The drugs needed to save lives are in short supply.  It's a growing crisis here in eastern Wisconsin.

We spoke to a local cancer patient who's still on a waiting list for a drug that could save her life.  At one point an estimated half million patients in the U.S. were not able to get the drugs they needed. In Julie Hansen's case, she's still waiting and fighting to live.
First responders making last minute decisions to save lives forced to make do with the drugs available.  Doctors looking for different options to treat cancer, and those cancer patients waiting for treatments that could be the difference between living and dying.
"I got to the point where I knew I was in trouble because I couldn't eat," Julie Hansen told us.  She's three years into her diagnosis of late stage ovarian cancer.  Now on her sixth round of chemo, treating the disease has almost killed Julie.  "I got a severe reaction to the carbo platinum which sent me into cardiac arrest."  Doctors switched her to a new chemo drug; it didn't work. At one point Doxil was the preferred treatment, but it was out of supply.  So Julie went on a waiting list.  She's been on that list for 17 months.  "In the meantime every chemo's done a different damage to my body," Julie pointed out. 
The drug shortage problem has skyrocketed in recent years.  In 2006, 56 drugs were in short supply. In February of this year it jumped to more than 200.  Dr. Jonathan Treisman is the Medical Director of Wheaton Franciscan Cancer Care.  He, like others, has been forced to hold off treating some patients with Doxil.  "I've had patients where I really think they would have done better had I had the drug available to them sooner."  At one point, more than half the drugs on the FDA shortage list were considered critical.   Like the standard drug used to treat acute leukemia.
First responders are also in a tough spot.  When we talked to paramedic Mike Krueger he showed us the empty Atropine and Lidocaine bins.  Life saving drugs used on patients with heart problems.  Something Krueger calls a "huge hardship."  Krueger's been a paramedic 20 years; he's now president of Lifestar EMS and has never seen anything like this.  Standard pain meds like Morphine in short supply for several years now. "Sometimes there's alternatives that are good sometimes there's alternatives that don't work quite as well."  And Krueger admits it means more room for error.  Many of the drugs not available come premixed.  Krueger pointed out "now we're having to potentially draw that up and dilute it and mix it up to meet what we need."  All in a moving ambulance.
"It's the United States of America, and we can't get people the treatments that they need," Emily Rohloff told us.  She's with the advocacy affiliate of the American Cancer Society, one of several groups pushing to stop this disturbing trend.  A trend in some cases that's caused by economics; manufacturers switching to drugs that bring in more money.  In other cases, manufacturing problems lead to plant shutdowns disrupting the drug supply.   "A solution had to happen, and it had to happen now," Rohloff said.
And it did this summer.  President Obama signed the bill into law.  The hope is new legislation solves the problem.  
But Julie is still waiting for Doxil and is still not in remission.  She's now trying a drug used to treat lung cancer.  "It's like a shot in the dark 'well let's try this.' " As she waits and fights Julie is speaking out telling her story to anyone who will listen.  "You don't want anybody to go through what you've been through."
Julie was told Doxil will be available very soon, but Julie says she's still skeptical.  
So how does new legislation help solve the problem?  It does two things: it makes manufacturers give the FDA a head's up if they forsee a shortage.  It also ensures there are alternative drugs available.