Raleigh, N.C. — Although President Barack Obama ordered federal officials Monday to help reduce shortages of critical drugs as much as possible, pharmacists are still advising patients to plan ahead on filling prescriptions.
The executive order calls for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to speed up its safety reviews and push drug companies to better communicate on supplies.
Hospitals and pharmacies nationwide said supplies of more than 200 drugs to treat everything from attention-deficit disorder to cancer and to protect patients during surgery are limited.
"The level of shortage is the worst in history right now," said Jane Green, pharmacy director for Rex Healthcare. "The demand for medications is growing just like our population is growing."
At WakeMed, pharmacist Lynn Eschenbacher said various injectable drugs used during and after surgery are in short supply. Pharmacies work to track down alternatives, but that can be costly.
For example, the alternative for one drug used to protect the lining of the stomach costs five times more that the drug itself, and insurance companies don't cover the mark-up.
"It is a crisis, and the time and energy that we're spending in the hospitals on this is enormous," Eschenbacher said.
Some deaths across the U.S. have been blamed on a patients not getting a needed drug.
In September, the WRAL Health Team spoke with Bessie and Delmas Williams as he nervously waited for bladder cancer medication. Orders for the drug were backed up, and he eventually turned to a friend from church who had a connection through a medical clinic to find the drug.
"Some of these drugs, even though they're essential for patients, if the company is not making money, there's no incentive to make it," Eschenbacher said.
The shortages have created a gray market, where little-known companies pop up across the country with supplies of critical drugs at escalated prices, she said.
Green said Obama's order is a good step to easing the shortages.
"Any light we can shine on this particular problem can only be helpful," she said.