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Anemia-Treating Power Trio: More Money, More Problems

For over 20 years, doctors have been profiting on three of the best selling, FDA-approved prescription drugs in the United States, commanding as much as  $3 billion a year from U.S. taxpayers. These three “blockbuster” drugs are Aranesp, Procrit, and Epogen: three anemia drugs, whose benefits were said to include “happiness and satisfaction in life”, but these results, according to research, have been incredibly overstated, and their potentially lethal side effects- which include stroke, cancer, and an increased risk of death- have been overlooked.

In 2011, researchers from Medicare issued a study that declared there was no evidence that these anemia drugs had improved kidney patients’ “life satisfaction”, happiness, chances of survival, or even helped them feel better. In fact, the only “clinical benefits” were an elevated statistic for red blood cell count. The massive sales of these drugs were based entirely on “false promises”.

Epogen, Procrit, and Aranesp are erythopoisis-stimulating agents, a.k.a ESAs, which are a bioengineered version of natural proteins made in the kidney that stimulate the bone marrow to produce red blood cells. These drugs are used primarily to treat patients with chronic kidney disease who suffer from anemia, but have also been approved to treat anemia in cancer patients who are undergoing chemotherapy. The drugs’ use has also been expanded over time to treat dialysis patients, patients who suffer from AIDS and cancer, and even patients undergoing knee or hip surgery.

Amgen and Johnson & Johnson, the makers of this trio of anemia drugs, have seen sales of $8 billion per year, ranking them as best-sellers for years. They have been the most expensive medications covered by Medicare, annually.

So how can these drugs, based on fraudulent claims, rake in so much money every year? A doctor must administer the drugs. Because of this, physicians are able to charge much more for the drugs than the price they paid for them. Even worse is that Amgen and Johnson & Johnson offer discounts to doctors that dispense the medications in large volumes, resulting in more incentive for physicians to administer high doses of this potentially deadly drug to patients. This practice is known as “spreading”.

While Procrit, Epogen, and Amgen can restore vitality to kidney disease patients who suffer from anemia, the research used to back wider use of the drugs downplayed the deadly side effects and overstated the supposed quality of life improvements.