Here’s a question to get you thinking this Friday morning. What has been called the “worst public health crisis” in the US in decades? Is it:
(d) Heart Disease
(e) None of the above
While there’s no doubt options (a) through (d) challenge our healthcare system, the correct answer is in fact (e). What’s more, this public health crisis may have gone unnoticed by many. What we’re referring to is the fungal meningitis outbreak that was traced to the New England Compounding Center. So far, there have 751 reported cases, including 64 deaths.
Indeed, most Americans had never heard of compounding pharmacies until the now-shuttered New England Compounding Center was blamed for making tainted steroid injections that killed and sickened people in 20 states.
Since then, the FDA has issued more than 60 reports of compounding pharmacies that had one or more quality or sterility issues. Five compounding pharmacy testing labs received similar reports.
Now, after months of negotiating, the US Senate has finally passed legislation that was drafted in the wake of the scandal. The Drug Quality and Security Bill will give the FDA greater oversight of compounding pharmacies and also creates a national system for tracking prescription medicines from factory to pharmacy. The bill, which was already passed by the US House, is designed to bolster the pharmaceutical supply chain, and now goes to President Obama for his signature
The bill will create a new class of compounding pharmacies, as suggested by the FDA. The agency believes that traditional compounders – those who mix or alter ingredients for individual patients on an as-needed basis, should be distinguished from ‘non-traditional’ compounders – those that sell high volumes and ship out of state because these activities may pose a higher risk.
“We know more from a barcode on a gallon of milk than we do from a barcode on a bottle of prescription drugs, which could mean the difference between life and death,” says US Senator Michael Bennet. “Whether it’s a stronger drug supply chain or better oversight for compounded drugs, this commonsense bill will help restore confidence in our prescription drugs and protect our families from potential health risks.”
The bill also creates a voluntary category for so-called office compounding of sterile medications. These operations would voluntarily register with the FDA and submit to GMP, or good manufacturing practices, compliance and pay fees in exchange for the right to ship product without a prescription. But there is no criteria concerning interstate shipping or the percentage of production involved.
The legislation “leaves regulation of this vital and long-accepted practice by independent community pharmacies to state boards of pharmacy, where it should be,” says the National Community Pharmacists Association.
But not everyone agrees.
Rosa DeLauro, a Democratic Congresswoman from Connecticut, says the “voluntary approach will continue to expose patients to potentially unsafe, mass-produced compounded drugs that are not approved or evaluated by the FDA.”
Similarly, the International Academy of Compounding Pharmacists released a statement saying that “a voluntary category of outsourcing facilities is not the answer” and warned that another potentially deadly New England Compounding Center type of scandal could still occur.
Some health policy experts have even said they fear the new bill will make drugs, less, rather than more, safe.
Critics say that by giving compounding pharmacies the option whether or not to register with the Food and Drug Administration and adhere to stricter guidelines for testing, quality and sterility, does not go far enough.
“It makes what is now illegal legal,” said Dr. Michael Carome, who directs the health research group at Public Citizen, a think tank.
Carome said he opposes the bill because it allows large scale compounding without individual prescriptions and with no requirement to follow the strictest quality and sterility guidelines that drug manufacturers must adhere to.
“It makes no sense to have two different tiers of drug manufacturers – one that has to meet all the manufacturing guidelines and one that only has to meet some of them. We believe in a level playing field.”
What do you think of this legislation? Has it gone far enough? We’d love to hear from you.