Government Price Controls Produce Cancer Drug Shortage—Who Would Have Guessed?


Government overreach

In the Sunday New York Times, bioethicist Ezekiel Emanuel describes how the federal government has created a cancer drug shortage. As he notes

RIGHT now cancer care is being rationed in the United States…

Of the 34 generic cancer drugs on the market, as of this month, 14 were in short supply. They include drugs that are the mainstay of treatment regimens used to cure leukemia, lymphoma and testicular cancer.

Why? Because of what are essentially government prices controls on generic cancer drugs. 

If the laws of supply and demand were working properly, a drug shortage would cause a price rise that would induce other manufacturers to fill the gap. But such laws do not really apply to cancer drugs.

The underlying reason for this is that cancer patients do not buy chemotherapy drugs from their local pharmacies the way they buy asthma inhalers or insulin. Instead, it is their oncologists who buy the drugs, administer them and then bill Medicare and insurance companies for the costs.

Historically, this "buy and bill" system was quite lucrative; drug companies charged Medicare and insurance companies inflated, essentially made-up "average wholesale prices." The Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement and Modernization Act of 2003, signed by President George W. Bush, put an end to this arrangement. It required Medicare to pay the physicians who prescribed the drugs based on a drug's actual average selling price, plus 6 percent for handling. And indirectly — because of the time it takes drug companies to compile actual sales data and the government to revise the average selling price — it restricted the price from increasing by more than 6 percent every six months.

The act had an unintended consequence. In the first two or three years after a cancer drug goes generic, its price can drop by as much as 90 percent as manufacturers compete for market share. But if a shortage develops, the drug's price should be able to increase again to attract more manufacturers. Because the 2003 act effectively limits drug price increases, it prevents this from happening. The low profit margins mean that manufacturers face a hard choice: lose money producing a lifesaving drug or switch limited production capacity to a more lucrative drug.

The result is clear: in 2004 there were 58 new drug shortages, but by 2010 the number had steadily increased to 211. (These numbers include noncancer drugs as well.)

What's the solution? Emanuel recommends changing the government price controls so that drug companies might collect as much as 30 percent over the average selling price. At the end, however, he reaches the right conclusion—the market. 

A more radical approach would be to take Medicare out of the generic cancer drug business entirely. Once a drug becomes generic, Medicare should stop paying, and it should be covered by a private pharmacy plan. That way prices can better reflect the market, and market incentives can work to prevent shortages.

Radical? Not really.

But wait, the Democrats and President Obama are now suggesting that price controls should be extended to Medicare Part D. I suppose that way we can enjoy shortages of all pharmaceuticals instead of just singling out cancer drugs.