Hospital industry officials and lobbyists must have felt as if they were on vacation last week.
After days of uncomfortable publicity regarding the Dartmouth Medical School reports on poor-quality hospital care and inexplicable deviations in treatment (Oct. 11, p. 6), the spotlight shifted to the pharmaceutical industry. Drugmakers, suppliers and federal regulators took turns in the dunk tank as the hardball questions began flying.
There was the Vioxx flap for starters (See p. 17). The recall by Merck & Co., the largest ever for a prescription drug in U.S. history, raised a host of questions about how thoroughly medicines are being tested before being given to patients. Merck withdrew the drug after a study showed that patients who took it for 18 months dramatically increased their risk of heart attack and stroke. Critics had contended for several years that Vioxx appeared to increase cardiovascular risks, but the drug continued to be aggressively mass-marketed.
Then there was the flu vaccine debacle (See p. 16). The British government suspended the license of Emeryville, Calif.-based Chiron Corp.'s plant in Liverpool, saying it had found problems that led to bacterial contamination. The decision wiped out almost half the U.S. supply of vaccine. By the midpoint of last week, the ineluctable congressional investigation was under way. The House Committee on Government Reform sent a letter to the Food and Drug Administration asking what the agency knew about the vaccine problems and when it knew it.
And then, just as inevitably, reports of good, old-fashioned price-gouging stepped onto the stage. Florida's attorney general sued a Fort Lauderdale, Fla. distributor, alleging that the company tried to sell flu vaccine for as much as 10 times the normal price. That lawsuit came one day after the firm was sued by Kansas' attorney general for allegedly violating consumer protection laws. Hospital pharmacy purchasers said they were deluged with various solicitations for marked-up doses. One hospital pharmacist quoted in the Washington Post complained the price increases were "gouging, disgusting and a disgrace to the industry."
To top off the lousy news for the pharmaceutical industry, the issues of high costs and drug reimportation arose during the presidential debates. Sen. John Kerry, eager for the senior-citizen vote, said he favored making cheaper drugs from Canada available to U.S. citizens. President Bush said he might support lifting the ban on such imports if it could be proven that the Canadians aren't trying to poison us with drugs that American companies sent to Canada in the first place. Given the Chiron episode, it would seem that the more imminent danger is from drugs made by American companies at foreign plants.
The pharmaceutical industry clearly has some PR damage-control work ahead of it. Hospitals should enjoy their brief respite off the target range. With healthcare costs skyrocketing and quality concerns growing, it won't be long before they are back in the sights.
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Modern Healthcare is inviting readers to submit nominations for the 2005 Health Care Hall of Fame induction. The program honors those who have made outstanding contributions to healthcare in this country and around the world. More than 60 healthcare visionaries are honored in the hall.
A panel of distinguished healthcare industry judges annually selects winners for this recognition.
Please send nominating letters and background information on candidates to Hall of Fame, c/o Neil McLaughlin, managing editor, Modern Healthcare, 360 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60601. The deadline is Dec. 3.
Inductees will be announced in January and profiled in the March 14, 2005 issue. They will be honored at a dinner held in conjunction with the American College of Healthcare Executives' annual congress in Chicago during the week of March 13, 2005.