Impact of Drug Shortages on Patient Safety and Pharmacy Operation Costs

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Results of the budgetary increase and staff member time allocation survey assessments are provided (Figures 1 and 2). Five facilities provided an annual estimate of increased cost due to acquisition of drugs on shortage through open market purchases that ranged from about $150,000 to $750,000. Nearly half of the surveyed facilities endorsed having a drug shortage task force (n = 8) to respond to drug shortages and mitigate their impact.

Regarding drug product allocation, only 2 facilities did not have current restrictions for use due to a shortage. Many had between 1 and 10 of these restrictions implemented to conserve supply (n = 11, 64%), 2 facilities reported 11 to 20 restrictions, and 2 facilities noted more than 30 restrictions. Similarly, 3 facilities had not needed to revise any current treatment protocols due to drug shortages. The majority of facilities had revised 1 to 5 current protocols (n = 12, 70%), 1 revised 6 to 10 protocols, and 1 facility revised more than 10 protocols.

In assessing patient safety concerns, 1 facility identified a history of transferring patients to alternative medical sites for the patients to obtain necessary medication impacted by a local shortage. Additionally, during the BCG vaccine shortage, 6 facilities (35.3%) substituted mitomycin C for the treatment of urinary bladder cancer.

Most participants either agreed (n = 8, 47.0%) or strongly agreed (n = 4, 23.5%) that modifications to FAR to increase purchasing opportunities from foreign distributors during drug shortage would help mitigate the impact of such shortages. Similarly, most participants agreed (n = 10, 58.8%) or strongly agreed (n = 3, 17.6%) that PBM guidance on drug shortage management would help efficiently and effectively respond to issues that might arise. The consensus of participants also agreed (n = 13, 76.5%) that organized collaborations or working groups within each VISN might help assist in drug shortage management.

The CMOP facility data revealed that 2 sites did not require dedicated staffing to respond to shortages, and 3 sites had not experienced cost increases because of shortages. Pharmacist use varied between sites, with 2 facilities using 1 to 10 pharmacist h/wk, and 1 facility using 11 to 20 pharmacist h/wk, and 1 facility using 21 to 30 pharmacist h/wk. Technician utilization was more pronounced, with 2 facilities using more than 30 technician h/wk, and 2 facilities using 1 to 10 technician h/wk. Workload and costs may have been influenced in other ways as 3 sites endorsed using overtime pay, shifting product responsibility between CMOPs, prolonging patient wait times, and close monitoring for each. In fiscal year 2015, some sites experienced a 1% to 5% (n = 2) and 6% to 10% (n = 1) increase in operation cost attributable to shortage. Results from fiscal year 2016 showed that some sites continued to see a 1% to 5% (n = 1) and 6% to 10% (n = 2) increase in operation cost attributable to shortage.

Through aggregation of CMOP responses on the number of prescriptions sent back to local facility for fill due to back order, a downward trend in the total number of rejections was seen over the 2.5 fiscal years assessed. This amounted to more than 1 million rejections in fiscal year 2015, about 788,000 rejections in 2016, and about 318,000 rejections through the first 2 quarters of 2017.

A consistent rise in the medication procurement budget requirement was characterized within the single VA facility review. The quarterly median increase was 2.7% over 2.5 years (min: -1.4%; max: 6.6%) for total outpatient medication costs, excluding hepatitis C antiviral therapies. Procurement cost records were insufficient to characterize historic expenditures for 4 of the prespecified drug products. The data collected on tamsulosin capsule and nitroprusside vial procurement during shortage is provided (Figures 3 and 4). Over the time frame of procurement records found on review, the added costs of nitroprusside vials and tamsulosin capsules were $22,766.09 (+167.9% of base cost) and $17,433.70 (+657.3% of base cost), respectively. No patient safety data were found on review.


Drug product shortages represent a barrier to quality and efficiency across health care institutions. A survey of health system pharmacies in the southeastern U.S. found that the majority of respondents tracking shortage data reported a 300% to 500% markup by alternative or gray market suppliers for hard-to-find medications.11 These reports are similar to the authors’ analyses of the trends in increased procurement expenditures documented during the tamsulosin capsule and nitroprusside vial shortages and indirectly correlate with the survey results indicating that most facilities endorsed a trend in operation cost increase attributable to drugs product shortage. The estimated annual costs for open market purchases further informs the financial burden aggregated by this issue.

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