National drug shortage spreads to local EMS, fire rescue departments

PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. -- As much as 80 percent of the life-saving drugs that local paramedics use to treat patients is in short supply at any given time, WPTV NewsChannel 5 has learned.

The shortage -- which has impacted emergency medical services and fire rescue departments of all sizes across the country -- has no end in sight, some paramedics said.

Between 2005 and 2010, the number of drugs in short supply tripled,  according to the International Association of Fire Chiefs .

"In essence, what we have done is continuously put Band-Aids on an infected wound," said Patrick Thume, a captain at Palm Beach County Fire Rescue. "At some point, if this continues, we're just going to run out of Band-Aids."

The shortage, Thume said, was especially problematic at large departments such as his.

Palm Beach County Fire Rescue covers a geographic area larger than Rhode Island and is a first responder for a population that is equivalent to the population of five states.

Drugs to treat congestive heart failure, head injuries and seizures were among the drugs in short supply, Thume said.

Thume said some paramedics had been forced to dilute drugs because of the shortage.

"We're asked to be paramedics and pharmacists on the scene," Thume said. "We have taken a complicated situation and made it much more complicated."

Paramedics said there were many reasons for the shortage but no single solution for it.

Increased demand for some drugs has contributed to the shortage and increased the price of some drugs by as much as 400 percent.

Some drug manufacturers have closed.

Others have encountered problems in the production of their drugs.

"What ends up happening is the patient may wait longer for a drug, they may get a reduced amount of drugs that they might not normally get or they may not get the drug at all," Thume said.

The Food and Drug Administration has said it is extremely concerned about the shortage and has pushed drug manufacturers to stay ahead of potential shortages by giving it advance warning.

"If you're getting called to a home and a patient has a broken limb [or] severe pain these are medications that are not in stock," said Dr. David Soria, a WPTV NewsChannel 5 medical expert . "It definitely ties the hands of our paramedical providers to be able to treat our patients prior to getting to the hospital in the best manner."

Soria said some emergency medical services or fire rescue departments may have to turn to hospitals to bridge the shortage.

"Hospitals have bigger purchasing power. They can get those medications and share those with the EMS community," Soria said. "There [are] ways to get around it but we have to get our arms around this crisis before it gets a lot worse."

The FDA, which maintains a list of drugs in short supply , said 117 drugs were in short supply in 2012.

Earlier this month, the agency asked the public to send it ideas to combat the problem .

Some paramedics said the State of Florida should allow them to use drugs after they expire -- something some states have done.

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