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Senators propose ‘first step’ to address US drug shortages by examining supply chains

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(WASHINGTON) — Shortages of critical medication have plagued the country, according to a recent congressional report, and a bipartisan pair of senators is now looking for answers from federal agencies about the impact the shortfall could potentially have on national security.

Michigan Democrat Gary Peters, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, a military veteran, are introducing legislation on Thursday that would require the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense and the Department of Health and Human Services to assess vulnerabilities in supply chains and to make plans to help prevent U.S. overreliance on foreign countries for key pharmaceuticals.

Shortages of some drugs have been an ongoing problem in the U.S. for more than a decade, according to a report by the Senate Homeland Security Committee in March, which also found that COVID-19 exacerbated the issues.

The report found that there were 295 active pharmaceutical shortages in 2022 — for medications to treat everything from asthma to ADHD to cancer — in part because the U.S. depends on foreign providers in nations like China and India for some of the active pharmaceutical ingredients necessary to give medications their desire effect.

Reliance on these entities became a critical weakness for the U.S. during the pandemic when some foreign countries placed limits on exports of pharmaceuticals.

“The United States cannot continue to rely on our foreign adversaries, like China, for critically important materials to meet the medical needs of Americans,” Ernst said in a statement. “I’m sounding the alarm on our compromised medical supply chain. It’s past time to reduce our reliance on bad actors and protect the health of our citizens now and in the future.”

The Department of Defense’s inspector general found in 2021 that drug shortages were a potential threat to U.S. military operations. And the Senate Homeland Committee has said the deficits expose the U.S. to a potential security threat because reliance on foreign pharmaceuticals could be exploited by an adversary.

Sens. Ernst and Peters are proposing legislation that would require key agencies to build on existing lists of medicines and active ingredients necessary to respond to public health emergencies to note where there are supply chain vulnerabilities — and which drugs and components are sourced primarily from foreign countries.

Peters called it a “first step” in addressing possible security risks.

“Our federal government’s lack of visibility into the entire supply chain for critical medications limits our ability to address drug shortages that pose a serious national security risk and could compromise medical care for people all across the country, including service members,” Peters said in a statement.

“This bipartisan legislation will provide the federal government with a better understanding of how our overreliance on foreign nations for critical drugs threatens our military readiness and creates health risks for Americans, which will help lawmakers ensure our nation is better able to mitigate these national security threats,” the statement continued.

The legislation has bipartisan support, but it’s not yet clear whether it’ll have a path to the Senate floor this session.

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