Nationwide drug shortage affecting variety of local care facilities

gmartin@islandpacket.comNovember 9, 2011 

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Beaufort County medical facilities are adapting to a nationwide prescription drug shortage that one local pharmacist called as severe as any in recent memory.

"I've been a pharmacist for almost 10 years, and we just went through the worst summer I can remember," said Dr. Jamie Hubbard, who works at a CVS store in Bluffton. "It's just progressively become worse and worse."

The shortage is part of a national crisis that led President Barack Obama to issue an executive order last week directing the Food and Drug Administration and Department of Justice to take measures to alleviate drug shortages and prevent price-gouging.

The number of reported prescription drugs with shortages nationwide nearly tripled between 2005 and 2010 -- from 61 to 178 -- according to the FDA.

Jeff Stensland, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services, said the state allows doctors to access more expensive name-brand drugs during shortages of generic medications. However, he stressed that has always been his agency's policy.

The policy hasn't had much effect on local pharmacists like Hubbard.

"Right now, more drugs than I've ever seen are getting backordered," Hubbard said, adding that he's heard of people driving two hours to pick up medication.

A wide range of commonly used drugs, from vitamin B-12 shots to some medications for attention-deficit disorder, are in short supply at Hubbard's pharmacy.

And at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, some drugs for more serious illnesses also are scarce.

"We're weathering the storm right now," said Dr. Frank Miriello, hospital director of pharmacy.

"We've had shortages but have been really fortunate in that none of them have caused any cancellation of surgeries."

Both Beaufort Memorial and Hilton Head hospitals are adapting to the shortages by occasionally substituting a more readily available drug when possible.

"We've developed contingency plans with suppliers and work collaboratively with our medical staff to identify medically approved alternative medications that can be used for our patients," Hilton Head Hospital spokeswoman Kelly Presnell wrote in a statement.

Miriello mentioned that narcotic analgesics -- powerful painkillers -- were in particularly short supply, and cited the ongoing war efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq as a contributing factor. He also said that a shortage of raw materials used to manufacture drugs is causing a months-long delay in distributing other medication.

Jenny Brasington, executive director of Hospice Care of the Lowcountry, said she received word Tuesday that a medication her staff frequently uses would be in short supply for the next few months.

"It's something that forces us to be a little more creative with our care and find what else we can use," Brasington said.

Back at the Bluffton CVS, Hubbard paused when asked whether the shortages have hurt business.

"Well, yes and no," he said. "Yes, because we can't fill people's medication, and no, because no one else can either."

Renee Dudley of the (Charleston) Post & Courier contributed to this report.

Follow reporter Grant Martin at Twitter.com/LowCoBiz.

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