Prescription Drug Prices Could Skyrocket Following Hurricane Maria Devastation

Drug shortages due to Hurricane Maria haven’t happened yet but are still possible, according to the FDA and a healthcare disaster preparedness organization. But even though Maria hasn’t impacted drug supplies or prices yet, mainland American consumers could feel the effects of this natural disaster on their prescription drugs in a variety of ways. 

“First, a natural disaster like a hurricane can damage manufacturing facilities,” Jennifer Miller, a population health professor at New York University who focuses on medical ethics, told Newsweek. “It can also damage the healthcare delivery system or the raw materials needed to manufacture the drug." 

When natural disasters disrupt the production of drugs to the point where supplies are impacted, prices may rise on the “grey market,” which is when drugs are sold outside of the usual channels, Miller said. For example, online pharmacies can be involved in the grey market.

This concern isn't just theoretical. Hurricane Georges swept through Puerto Rico in 1998. "It ended up causing some severe drug shortages," Miller said. 

One particular type of nitroglycerin tablets, which are used to treat heart conditions, were unavailable after the storm, according to the Sun-Sentinel, a south Florida-based newspaper.

“Georges was more difficult for a myriad of reasons,” said Nicolette Louissaint, the executive director of Healthcare Ready. Healthcare Ready is a non-profit that helps the healthcare system prepare for disasters; major contributors include Pfizer, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

Companies have taken measures since 1998 to have better preparedness plans. And, Louissaint noted, Maria arriving so soon after Irma may have helped this particular situation. “By preparing their facilities for Irma, which was just a couple of weeks ago, many companies found themselves more prepped for this hurricane,” she said.

Puerto Rico, where Maria hit on Wednesday, is home to several major pharmaceutical companies including Amgen, AstraZeneca and AbbVie. About 90,000 Puerto Ricans work in the industry.

Medications produced on the island include Crestor, which AstraZeneca manufactures in Canovanas. Drugs to treat cancer and to suppress the immune system of transplant patients are also produced there, according to the FDA, as are devices for people with diabetes.

Puerto Rico Backhoe Maria A worker uses a backhoe loader to remove damaged electrical installations from a street after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Though Maria hasn't caused any drug shortages yet, “we are aware of several [...] instances where we may soon face critical shortages if we don’t find a path for removal or ways to get production back up and running,” the statement read. The FDA is creating a hurricane shortages task force to address the issue.

An update on Wednesday from Healthcare Ready indicated that the organization was "aware of impacts to supply but not confirmed shortages of specific supplies or products." 

In a statement, pharmaceutical company AbbVie assured patients that its medications would continue to be available. “AbbVie’s manufacturing network is designed to provide multiple and redundant channels of product supply and we have managed our inventory to assure availability of medicines to patients. No patient impact is expected as a result of Hurricane Maria,” the statement read.

"This is both a short- and long-term issue," the FDA's statement noted. The agency said it will continue to monitor the situation.