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Hidden Truths of Anemia Drugs

Bedram Bararpour4 years ago

A Medicare study last year found there was no evidence to back up the supposed benefits of top-selling, costly anemia drugs.

Anemia is a condition in which the body does not produce as many red blood cells as it should. Anemia drugs were once some of the best-selling drugs in the United States, bringing in more than $8 billion for Amgen and Johnson & Johnson. Taxpayers spent up to $3 billion a year for these drugs, as they were once the costliest drugs under Medicare.

Practically No Benefits of the Anemia Drugs

According to The Washington Post, the drug’s supposed benefits were wildly exaggerated and some serious side effects, such as cancer and strokes, were largely ignored. In fact, the only clinical benefit of the drug was that it elevated a person’s red blood cell count. The drug included man-made versions of the hormone, erythropoietin, which stimulates the body to make red blood cells.

While the drugs did in fact seem to work in terms of treating anemia, the problem was that drugmakers pushed for the drugs to be used in larger doses and to treat mild anemia and other illnesses, news outlets reported. The size of average doses was more than tripled and the drugs were used to treat patients with cancer, AIDS, and even people undergoing hip and knee surgery. They did this by claiming the larger doses would make people feel better.

Staying on the Market

The drug was able to stay on the market and gain approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) due to well-funded research and many lobbying campaigns by the drugmakers. Amgen and Johnson & Johnson both ran trials of the drug that exaggerated the benefits of the drug while overlooking the dangers, The Washington Post reported.

The drugmakers agreed to do safety studies, but many of these studies were abandoned and never published. Some studies showed that people receiving a larger dose had a higher chance of having a heart attack, but the data was deemed inconclusive.

More Treatment, More Money

Incentives played a role in the popularity of the anemia drugs, news outlets reported.

  • In the case of the anemia drugs, the bigger the dosage of the drug, the more money a hospital received.
  • Physicians that administer a drug can gain money if there is a difference between the money they paid for a drug and the money they are charging a patient.
  • The drugmakers gave doctors an incentive to use large doses by offering discounts to practices that used the drug in large volumes.
  • Lobbying campaigns also forced lawmakers to reimburse hospitals more for the drug than what they paid for it.
  • One shot alone could cost as much as $2,500 for patients.

Some of the economic incentives to use larger doses have disappeared, such as Medicare’s “bundling” system. This has driven down sales, including a 20% drop for Epogen. For more information on the story, read The Washington Post’s detailed article here.

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