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Anemia Drugs Procrit & Epogen May Do More Harm Than Good

Nov 30, 2006 | Two studies in the New England Journal of Medicine this month have called into question the overuse of drugs in the treatment of anemia in kidney patients. The two most popular anemia drugs, Amgen’s Epogen and Johnson and Johnson’s Procrit are at the center of the controversy, as researchers try to determine whether they’ve been over-prescribed by medical professionals. Sales of anemia drugs are approaching $10 billion annually.

Scientists have found that anemic kidney patients are susceptible to heart problems or death when aggressively treated with these drugs. The drugs are intended to boost hemoglobin in anemic patients, but the increase in hemoglobin is apparently associated with other serious risks.

Before the advent of these anemia treatments, patients had to undergo transfusions to keep their red blood cell counts at healthy levels. The new drugs have been very successful in boosting red blood cell counts, but the fear today is that doctors have become too reliant on the drugs and that they aren’t sufficiently aware of the risks related to boosting hemoglobin (a main component of red blood cells) in kidney patients, which can include heart attack, stroke, and high blood pressure.

Also at issue is Medicare’s payment structure for the anemia drugs. The drugs are currently an enormous profit generator for dialysis clinics around the country. Most dialysis patients receive the drugs, and the drugs generate significantly more cash for the clinics than the dialysis treatments themselves.

Earlier this month, the Boston Globe reported that California Congressmen Bill Thomas and Pete Stark, both members of the House Ways and Means committee, wrote a letter to Medicare, accusing it of failing to “stem the systemic abuse of Epogen, resulting in costs to taxpayers and potential health dangers to patients.” Epogen is Medicare’s largest drug expenditure.

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