Nightly News   |  October 17, 2011

Capitalizing on drug shortages, companies turn profit

A congressional staff investigation has found that some companies are making the drug shortages worse by buying drugs and re-selling them for astronomical prices. NBC’s Lisa Myers has more.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: Back now with some new reporting tonight on a story that's gotten a lot of attention of late, the shortage of chemo drugs , drugs to treat childhood leukemia as well as breast and ovarian and colon cancer , to name a few. Congress has held hearings on the issue. Now its own investigation has found some companies are making the situation worse in the name of profits. The story from our senior investigative correspondent, Lisa Myers .

LISA MYERS reporting: Thirteen-year-old Joey Norris , who's been battling leukemia for three years, was back at Children's National Medical Center today for more chemotherapy. His mom, Margaret , says a critical shortage of drugs to fight this disease frightens her.

MARGARET: To find out that you might not have access to the drug that you're looking for, that you have to have, is -- it's terrifying.

MYERS: So far Joey 's gotten what he needs, but she says other moms have had to drive hours to find drugs for their children. Dr. Jeffrey Dome says the unprecedented shortage threatens to roll back years of progress in increasing survival rates.

Dr. JEFFREY DOME (Children's National Medical Center Oncology Chief): Children's lives could be lost if they don't have the drugs available to treat their cancer.

MYERS: It's that serious?

Dr. DOME: Yes.

MYERS: Children's has managed so far, but doctors at other hospitals tell us they've had to delay or reorder treatments. Now a congressional staff investigation has found that some companies acting as middlemen are actually making the shortage worse, buying drugs for everything from cancer to infections, then selling them for astronomical prices. Representative ELIJAH CUMMINGS (Democrat, House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ): They're exacerbating the shortage and they're profiteering big time. Big time.

MYERS: Congressman Cummings ' investigation found a Miami -based company offering a leukemia drug which typically sells to hospitals for $12 a vial for $990 a vial, and another company selling a breast and ovarian cancer drug, typically $65, for $500. A recent study found that the average markup for drugs in short supply was 650 percent.

Rep. CUMMINGS: This is the epitome of greed.

MYERS: We reached out to the companies accused of profiteering. They deny the allegations, say they're cooperating with the investigation, and that they're actually helping by getting drugs to patients who need them. But several prominent hospitals say price gouging is happening.

MARGARET: That's outrageous. It's immoral.

MYERS: Joey faces three more years of treatment. So you're a tough guy?

Mr. JOEY NORRIS: Yeah, a little bit.

MYERS: Lisa Myers , NBC News, Washington.