Common anemia drugs known as Procrit, Aranesp and Epogen are among the best-selling prescription drugs in the country.
But according to an article in the Washington Post, the rise in the drug’s profit can potentially be dangerous to those who receive them.
Two companies, Amgen and Johnson & Johnson, generate more than $8 billion a year, but at what cost?
Information on the benefits of the drug, which included “life satisfaction and happiness” are listed on the FDA-approved label. However, research has concluded that those statements have been overstated. Also, potentially lethal side effects such as cancer and strokes have been overlooked.
Anemia is caused when the body produces too few red blood cells. Having too few of those cells can make carrying oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body a dangerous problem. These drugs were made to help stimulate the body to produce more of the red blood cells.
According to the article, the drugs elevate a statistic for red blood cell counts. However, there is no evidence that they improve a patient’s survival or make them feel better.
It was discovered instead that health care officials who gave patients bigger doses made more money.
Drugs administered by physicians can yield a very high profit if there is a “spread,” which is the difference between the price they pay for the drug and the price they ultimately charge patients.
The drug makers give physicians an incentive or motivation for giving larger doses. Practices that dispense the drug in large volumes were offered discounts and the companies making the drug overfilled vials, allowing doctors a chance to increase profit margins.
Even though the drug levels that patients were receiving were considered dangerous, physicians continued to give large doses. While they told patients that the drug would be beneficial, they could easily make $100,000 to $300,000 a year from the incentives.
As ads continued to state how patients could feel a lot better by taking the drug, the FDA raised safety concerns. With this, the drugmakers agreed to conduct some studies to promote the facts.
The Normal Hematocrit Trial drew in more than 1,200 patients who were on dialysis. Half of the patients received enough Epogen to boost their hematocrit up to about 42 percent while the other half received only enough to get their levels up to 30 percent.
The trial had to come to an end three years later when the “normal” higher-dose group were dying or having heart attacks at a high rate than those in the lower-dose group.
This became evidence that showed the drugs could potentially be deadly. The results from this study were published in a medicine journal in 1998 and were glossed over.
It was stated by federal statistics that in 2007, more than 80 percent of dialysis patients on Medicare were receiving the drug at levels that the FDA considers very unsafe.
Since then, the FDA has cracked down on the drugs; the maximum recommended doses have been lowered and it was ruled out as an option for patients considered just slightly anemic.
Snyder and Wenner, P.C.