Sudeep Taksali thought he'd won his battle to avoid a steep price tag on a medicine for his daughter. He was wrong.
In 2020, he'd fought to get insurance to cover a lower-priced version of a drug his then-8-year-old needed. She'd been diagnosed with central precocious puberty, a rare condition marked by early onset of sexual development — often years earlier than one's peers. KHN and NPR wrote about Taksali and his family as part of the Bill of the Month series.
The girl's doctors and the Taksalis decided to put her puberty on pause with a hormone-blocking drug implant that would be placed under the skin in her arm and release a little bit of the medication each day.
Taksali, an orthopedic surgeon, learned there were two nearly identical drug products made by Endo Pharmaceuticals, both containing 50 milligrams of the hormone blocker histrelin. One cost more than eight times more than the other. He wanted to use the cheaper one, Vantas, which costs about $4,800 per implant. But his insurer would not initially cover it, instead preferring Supprelin LA, which is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat central precocious puberty, and costs about $43,000.
Vantas can be prescribed off-label for the condition, and after much back-and-forth dialogue, Taksali finally got the insurer to cover it.
Then this summer, it was time to replace the implant.
"I thought we would just get a Vantas replacement," Taksali said. "In my mind, I was like, 'Well, she got it the first time, and we've already kind of fought the battle with the insurance company and, you know, got it approved."
But during a virtual appointment with his daughter's doctor, he learned they couldn't get Vantas. No one could. There was a Vantas shortage.
Endo cited a manufacturing problem. Batches of Vantas weren't coming out right and couldn't be released to the public, the company's vice president of corporate affairs, Heather Zoumas Lubeski, told NPR in an email. Vantas and Supprelin were made in the same facility, but the problem affected only Vantas, she wrote, stressing that the drugs are "not identical products."
In August, Endo's president and CEO, Blaise Coleman, told investors Supprelin was doing particularly well for the company. Revenue had grown by 79% compared with the same quarter the year before. The growth was driven in part, Coleman explained, "by stronger-than-expected demand resulting from expanded patient awareness and a competitor product shortage," he said.
What competitor product shortage? Could that be Vantas?
Asked about this, Zoumas Lubeski said Coleman wasn't referring to Vantas. Since Vantas isn't approved to treat central precocious puberty, it can't technically be considered a competitor to Supprelin. Coleman was referring to the rival product Lupron Depot-Ped, not an implant, but an injection made by AbbVie, Zoumas Lubeski said.
Taksali was skeptical.
"It's all very curious, like, huh, you know, when this particular option went away and your profits went up nearly 80% from the more expensive drug," he said.
Then, in September, Endo told the FDA it stopped making Vantas for good.
Zoumas Lubeski said that when Endo investigated its Vantas manufacturing problem, it wasn't able to find "a suitable corrective action that resolves the issue."
"As a result, and after analysis of the market for the availability of alternative therapies, we made the difficult decision to discontinue the supply of this product," she said via email. "Endo is committed to maintaining the highest quality standards for all of its products."
Taksali said he felt resigned to giving his daughter Supprelin even before the shortage turned into a discontinuation. Ultimately, he won't pay much more out-of-pocket, but his insurance will pay the rest. And that could raise his business's premiums.
The FDA cannot force Endo to keep making the drug or set a lower price for the remaining one. It doesn't have the authority. That decision lies with Endo Pharmaceuticals. A drugmaker discontinuing a product isn't anything new, said Erin Fox, who directs drug information and support services at University of Utah Health hospitals.
"The FDA has very little leverage because there is no requirement for any company to make any drug, no matter how lifesaving," she said. "We have a capitalist society. We have a free market. And so any company can discontinue anything … at any time for any reason."
Still, companies are supposed to tell the FDA about potential shortages and discontinuations ahead of time so it can minimize the impact on public health. It can help a firm resolve a manufacturing issue, decide whether it's safe to extend an expiration date or help a company making an alternative product to ramp up production.
"The FDA expects that manufacturers will notify the agency before a meaningful disruption in their own supply occurs," FDA spokesperson Jeremy Kahn wrote in an email. "When the FDA does not receive timely, informative notifications, the agency's ability to respond appropriately is limited."
But the rules are somewhat flexible. A company is required to notify the FDA of an upcoming drug supply disruption six months before it affects consumers or "as soon as practicable" after that. But their true deadline is five business days after manufacturing stops, according to the FDA website.
"They're supposed to tell the FDA, but even if they don't, there's no penalty," Fox said. "There's no teeth in that law. … Their name can go on the FDA naughty list. That's pretty much it."
In rare cases, the FDA will send a noncompliance letter to the drugmaker and require it to explain itself. This has happened only five times since 2015. There is no such letter about Vantas, suggesting that Endo met the FDA's requirements for notification.
Concerned about potential drug shortages caused by covid-19 in March 2020, a bipartisan group of legislators introduced the Preventing Drug Shortages Act, which aimed to increase transparency around shortages. But the legislation gained no traction.
As a result of limited FDA power, the intricacies of drug shortages remain opaque, Fox said. Companies don't have to make the reasons for shortages public. That sets the Vantas shortage and discontinuation apart from many others. The company is saying more about what happened than most do.
"Many companies will actually just put drugs on temporarily unavailable or long-term backorder, and sometimes that can last years before the company finally makes a decision" on whether to discontinue a product, she said. "It can take a long time, and so it can be frustrating to not know — or to kind of stake your hopes on a product coming back to the market once it's been in shortage for so long."
It's hard to know exactly how many children will be affected by the Vantas discontinuation because data about off-label use is hard to come by.
Dr. Erica Eugster, a professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, said central precocious puberty patients weren't her first thought when she learned of the Vantas discontinuation.
"I immediately thought about our our transgender population," she said. "They're the ones that are really going to suffer from this."
No medications have been FDA-approved to treat patients with gender dysphoria, the medical term for when the sex assigned at birth doesn't match someone's gender identity, causing them psychological distress. As a result, any drug to stop puberty in this population would be off-label, making it difficult for families to get health insurance coverage. Vantas had been a lower-cost option.
The number of transgender patients receiving histrelin implants rose significantly from 2004 to 2016, according to a study published in the Journal of Pediatric Endocrinology and Metabolism.
Images: Kristina Barker for KHN
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