A new study from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center has found that private insurers and Medicare waste almost $3 billion every year on cancer medications that are thrown out. The problem lies with drug manufacturers and federal governments’ hands-off approach to medication regulation. The combination of factors means that 10% of the volume of 18 of the top 20 cancer drugs in the country is discarded every year.
Dr. Peter Bach, director of the Center for Health Policy and Outcomes at Memorial Sloan Kettering and co-author of the study, told the New York Times, “Drug companies are quietly making billions forcing little old ladies to buy enough medicine to treat football players, and regulators have completely missed it. If we’re ever going to start saving money in health care, this is an obvious place to cut.”
The problem is complex, but the solution is not
First, safety standards permit drug leftovers to be used in a six-hour timeframe, and even then only in special cases. Second, the US Food and Drug Administration rarely objects to proposed medication vial sizes, and is not empowered to consider cost in marketing decisions. Third, companies are responsible for proposing the vial sizes they would like to market. When it comes to expensive drugs, bigger is better for the bottom line.
Dr. Leonard Saltz, another co-author of the study, said, “You have these incredibly expensive drugs, and you can only buy them in bulk. What’s really interesting is they’re selling these drugs in smaller vials in Europe, where regulators are clearly paying attention to this issue.”
Clearly, manufacturers have the ability to resolve this issue; what they lack is the incentive. The two co-authors proposed a fairly simple solution; either require manufactures to provide enough options to reduce waste, or mandate that companies refund the government for wasted quantities. Either way, drug waste will be minimized and costs will be reduced.
In the midst of growing healthcare problems, our country can’t afford to ignore a problem that increases cost with no added benefit. Too many of our citizens are unable to afford proper care, and skyrocketing costs have left others with crippling medical debt.
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