Richard Blumenthal
Flanked by Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute Physician-in-Chief Peter Yu, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal speaks to reporters at Hartford Hospital on Wednesday about the ongoing shortage of chemotherapy treatments and other prescription drugs. Credit: Mike Savino / CTNewsJunkie

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal called for more regulations Wednesday to deal with ongoing shortages of chemotherapy treatments and other prescription drugs. 

Blumenthal has co-sponsored a proposal aimed at addressing a problem that doctors say has forced them to find alternative treatments, delay medicines, and even ration critical drugs in some cases. 

“What we’re seeing right now is a kind of slow-motion national emergency,” Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said during a press conference Wednesday at Hartford Hospital. 

A survey released last week by the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists found that 32% of respondents described the current drug shortage as “critically impactful,” saying they have had to ration, delay, or cancel treatments or procedures.

Another 63% called the situation “marginally impactful” because they’ve been able to find alternatives, but those still had an impact on patient care.

Bimal Patel, president of Hartford Hospital and the Hartford region for Hartford HealthCare, said he and his staff typically get no advance notice when a drug shortage happens. 

“Everyday we will look for the newsletter that will come out, the email will drop to say what is in short supply,” he said.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) even recently suggested doctors ration chemotherapy drugs to give priority to patients with better chances of being cured.

Peter Yu, physician-in-chief for Hartford HealthCare’s Cancer Institute and a former president of the ASCO, said he agreed with the guidance, but it’s not a decision doctors want to make.

He said rationing essentially defies the Hippocratic Oath, through which doctors pledge to care for all patients.

“It is demoralizing to not be able to live up to that oath because of these circumstances and to have to do what we don’t want to do, which is play God,” he said.

Yu said doctors have been able to find alternative treatments, but those may not be as effective. 

It can also add to the stress of patients who agree with their doctors on a plan, only to find out in the middle of treatment that drugs are no longer available to them.

“That kind of advice, in effect trying to pick and choose patients … is absolutely intolerable,” Blumenthal said. “It’s proof positive that we need to deal with drug shortages right away.”

Blumenthal’s bill would require pharmaceutical companies to give notice to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration when they realize a drug shortage is looming.

It also extends expiration dates for many drugs, which Blumenthal said are often “artificially short.”

Lastly, the bill seeks to provide funding and incentives to entice companies to improve their facilities to prevent shortages. Blumenthal said 63% of facility shutdowns are caused by concerns about the safety and quality of the drugs.

Blumenthal admitted the bill is not a full solution to the problem, adding he thinks the federal government needs to use both funding and regulations to increase the supply of prescription drugs.

“The drug manufacturing enterprise in America ought to be regarded as no less important than public utilities that provide water and electricity,” he said.