Impact of Drug Shortages on Patient Safety and Pharmacy Operation Costs

Author and Disclosure Information




The complexity ranking system is a facility grouping method used within the VA to characterize the level of service provision, teaching and research opportunities, patient volume, intensive care unit level, and other factors offered by a VA site. Rankings start from 1 (highest level of services offered) to 3 (lowest level of services offered), with level 1 facilities further divided into a, b, and c subdivisions. A level 1a facility will be larger with more services offered than a 1b, which is larger and offers more services than a 1c facility. The VA facilities are further characterized by regional distribution. Sites are grouped under VISNs of which there are currently 21.

The CMOP program was responsible for dispensing about 119 million outpatient prescriptions in 2016 and includes designated sites for the dispensing of controlled substances and supply items. The VA Pharmacy Benefits Management Service (PBM) oversees formulary management, plans national drug policy, promotes safe and appropriate drug therapy, and delivers high-quality and sustainable pharmacy benefits for veterans.

Study Design

A descriptive study was initiated to characterize the impact of drug shortages among VA facilities. An analysis of administrative medication safety event reporting and institutional costs data at the Denver VAMC in Colorado was done, focusing on predetermined drug products involved in a recent shortage. The analysis was accomplished through a review of the VA adverse drug events reporting system (VA ADERS) reports and a local medication errors quality improvement database and paper procurement records, respectively. Concurrently, a survey was disseminated among qualifying VA facilities across the country that sought to characterize the impact of drug shortages nationally.

Sample Selection

Denver VAMC. The Denver VAMC, where the authors were located, was selected as the local sample site. The intention was to compare the strategies used locally with strategies used among similar (level 1a, 1b, and 1c) facilities. Preselected “cost-impacting” drug products were identified through a review of historic shortages with a significant local impact. These drugs were defined as low cost/high utilization (eg, tamsulosin 0.4-mg capsules and ketorolac solution), medium cost/utilization (eg, piperacillin/tazobactam IV solutions and aminocaproic acid solution), and high cost/low utilization (eg, nitroprusside IV solution and BCG vaccine solution). Additionally, patient safety event data reported internally for quality improvement and locally via VA ADERS were reviewed for preselected “safety impact” drug products and included BCG vaccine, tamsulosin capsules, IV fluid products, calcium gluconate and chloride injections, and aminocaproic acid injection.

National Survey. The authors identified 84 level 1 complexity facilities and used the PBM pharmacy directory to contact the administrative personnel representing each facility. These representatives identified a point of contact to aid in survey completion. A separate survey also was sent to the CMOP facilities (survey outlines available at

Data Collection

Denver VAMC. Financial data were sampled through a manual review of paper procurement records stored by date in the inpatient pharmacy of the Denver VAMC. Variables included units of product used over the period of drug shortage, cost per unit during shortage, and cost per unit before shortage. This information also was supplemented with data from the prescription processing software’s drug file. Patient safety data were gathered through query of the identified event reporting databases for the prespecified drug on shortage. These variables included the type of error and the effect the error had on the patient.

National Survey. Data collection focused on notable drug shortages and patient safety reporting between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2016. The survey was maintained in a facility-specific spreadsheet. Editing capabilities were disabled for all actions other than responding to questions. Recipients were followed up with a courtesy e-mail after 2 weeks and another 2 times unless a survey was received. Data were de-identified and aggregated for analyses.

Statistical Analyses

Excel 2010 (Microsoft, Redmond, WA) descriptive statistics were used to relay information from this assessment. Extrapolations from procurement cost data and drug product utilization were used to estimate the enhanced direct cost associated with identified drug shortages. Similar extrapolations were used to estimate the cost associated with shortages leading to CMOP rejection and local fill.


Survey completion totaled 20% of invited facilities (n = 17). Good geographic and VISN distribution was noted with representatives from VISNs 2, 4, 8, 9, 10, 12, 15, 16, 21, and 22. VISNs 10 and 12 provided the most representation with 3 participants, each. Level 1a facilities participated most (n = 9), followed by 1b (n = 6) and 1c (n = 2). Participating facilities reported a mean (SD) of 54 (21.5) pharmacists and 34 (15.3) pharmacy technician staff members employed. The most common reason for not participating was lack of personnel resources and competing demands. The CMOP participation was 100% (n = 7) and completed through a coordinated response.

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