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Is anemia-drug use too red-blooded?

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KAI RYSSDAL: The Senate wants the Food and Drug Administration to pay more attention to drugs after they're on the market. The vote was 93-1 today to require the FDA to come up with some kind of post-approval monitoring program. Nobody wants anymore high-profile drugs to be pulled off the market — think Merck and Vioxx here if you need.

Tomorrow, an FDA panel takes up anemia medications. They're often used by cancer patients. But they're expensive for patients and insurance companies. And perhaps for manufacturers as well. The New York Times reported today drug companies are effectively paying cancer doctors to encourage their use. And paying them a lot.

From the Marketplace Health desk at WGBH, Helen Palmer has more.


HELEN PALMER: These anemia drugs are the single biggest pharmaceutical expense for Medicare — nearly $2 billion a year.

Eric Weiner from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute says they're undoubtedly overused.

ERIC WEINER: Some of the overuse of these drugs probably arises from direct marketing to patients.

Weiner says it's tough to turn down cancer patients who feel lousy and see an ad telling them that this drug will make them feel better.

Weiner says he doesn't know if doctors get lucrative deals to prescribe the drugs, but there should be full disclosure.

Johnson & Johnson's anemia drug, Procrit, earns about $2 billion in the U.S. But that's less than 5 percent of JNJ's revenue. More worrying is the possibility of litigation — recent reports have shown that high doses of these drugs can increase heart attacks, stroke and death.

Mehta Partners analyst Max Jacobs says biotech company Amgen's anemia drugs, Epogen and Aranesp, are really important for the company.

MAX JACOBS: Epogen and Aranesp are about $6.7 billion approximately. So it's a very lage proportion of their revenues.

Almost half, indeed. As for generous payments to get doctors to use the drugs, Jacobs says aggressive marketing is the rule in the pharmaceutical industry.

In Boston, I'm Helen Palmer for Marketplace.

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