Congress must act on a bipartisan bill to protect Americans from medicine shortages
Millions of Americans are feeling the impact of drug shortages, from children’s Tylenol to amoxicillin. The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the fragility of our drug supply chains, underscoring America’s reliance on foreign — even hostile — nations for our most crucial medicines.
Absent policy action, Americans will continue to weather these life-threatening shortages. We know this because, unfortunately, it is nothing new.
Supply-driven generic pharmaceutical market failures have existed for more than two decades, resulting in ongoing shortages and quality risks. At any given time, there are typically about 150-200 generic drugs in shortage.
Generic drugs represent roughly 90 percent of all medications dispensed or administered. Unfortunately, manufacturers face adverse market incentives to make those drugs here. As a result of long and “just in time” global supply chains, generic drugs are often the most likely to go into shortage, especially when demand increases exponentially in a matter of days or weeks.
That is exactly what happened when demand surged in the emergency phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, resulting in shortages of the most common, low-cost drugs on the market, to the detriment of American patients.
From every setback there are steps forward. Working together through several legal and rule changes, Congress, the executive branch, and corporations can help prevent future shortages.
For example, multi-industry coalitions of companies can work with the federal government to strengthen collaborative solutions between the public and private sectors. It takes a network of manufacturers, distributors, and public health stakeholders to deliver proactive solutions and avert future shortages for the American people. Getting them all on the same page, and at the same table, is key.
Additionally, the government can help ensure a stable supply of essential medicines by working across agencies and with the nation’s private distributors to build up a stockpile of essential medicines, utilizing the commercial market’s expertise in safeguarding the efficient storage and timely distribution of these medications.
The Essential Medicines Strategic Stockpile Act (EMSSA) would require the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to establish a list of 50 generic medications that are essential in public health emergencies, the same way the U.S. has a reserve of oil for energy-related emergencies.
This bill allows the U.S. government to harness the innovation of the private sector by contracting with HHS to stockpile crucial medicines within their own supply chains. Companies could also be required to continuously cycle additional medicines through their supply chain to avoid any expiration issues while maintaining a six-month supply of the product that the federal government can access at any moment.
This pilot program, which we reintroduced this month, would be the first of its kind at HHS to prepare for pharmaceutical shortages. Congress should pass this immediately.
There is broad bipartisan support for increased domestic medical production because health and well-being do not abide by party lines. Critical medicine shortages don’t impact just Democrats or Republicans — they impact all of us. Passing EMSSA and protecting Americans from medicine shortages is timely, necessary, and bipartisan. It’s time for Congress to act.
Buddy Carter is a pharmacist and member of the House Energy and Commerce and Budget Committees. Lisa Blunt Rochester serves as an assistant whip for House Leadership and sits on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.